Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Royally pissed


I was born in a nation which had thrown off the shackles of His Britannic Majesty 201 years before, and as an adult, I moved to a country which had done so 51 years prior. I'm not a fan of the British monarchy, but I have nothing against them either. I am mystified by the obsession with the heir to the heir to the heir of the throne and how brilliant, I am sure, his poops must be. After all, they're just figureheads, right?

Except they're not. Queen Elizabeth II is head of state, which means she has the authority to do what she did today, granting a pardon to Alan Turing:
turingPardon_2774412c
Source: The Telegraph
Who was Alan Turing, and why should you care? Well, imagine if Albert Einstein was capable of doing math. If you're reading this, you owe Alan Turing, without whom the modern computer would never have existed. Also, the Nazis would probably have won without his code-breaking machine. And then there was the Turing test, which may help us prevent the RIse of the Machines by figuring out when they achieve true artificial intelligence. But if you're OK with killer robots, typewriters and the Third Reich, you could have done without Alan Turing.

That is, after all, what Her Majesty Elizabeth II's government decided. The Crown prosecuted Turing for "gross indecency," i.e. having sex with a consenting man, in 1952. The case was Regina v. Turing and Murray. Guess who that Regina was? Yup, Lizzie Deux, long may she wave.

Turing was given the choice of chemical castration or prison, and he chose the former. Two years later, at age 41, he committed suicide with cyanide; a half-eaten apple was found next to his corpse. It seems that Professor Turing had an obsession with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, especially the part with the Wicked Queen, disguised as a Witch, who uses a poisoned apple. I guess that was just a coincidence.
So Alan Turing gets a pardon on Christmas Eve, by Her Royal Mercy (not Justice, mind you). But he was not the only revolutionary scholar-teacher to catch a legal break this holiday season: our old friend Moti Elon (whom I've written about before here and here) got quite a gift from the Magistrate's Court in snowy Jerusalem. Though he has been convicted of two counts of indecent acts against a minor, he won't serve any jail time: he gets off with 6 months of community service.
After the sentencing, Elon said that he “happily accepted” the community service, wryly noting that has already been serving the community for years and “will be happy to engage in public service until I’m 120 years old.”
So, his community service will be preaching. Maybe the Knesset will pass a bill preventing him from teaching minors. Maybe the Rabbinate will strip him of his title. Or maybe he'll be pardoned. Who knows?

It's certainly not encouraging what Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of religious Zionism's most prestigious figures, has done. He has given him a job teaching at his own yeshiva, Or Etzion, where Elon will be in exactly the same position he was at Yeshivat HaKotel when he molested two 17-year-olds (indicted for both, convicted for one): teaching recent high-school graduates. Druckman states:
I don’t believe there is anything in his Torah lessons that is not kosher, there is no reason not to learn from him or listen to Torah lessons from him.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about an incident in which two people were in the room, Rabbi Elon and the complainant. There was no one in the room apart from them. This person claims one thing, which the other denies. There’s no other testimony [on this incident]. Who says the claim is true? No one knows what happened in the room and no one can know. This is why I saw the ruling as a mistake.
Got that, everyone? The ruling is wrong because there are no witnesses. Druckman's message: rape away, rabbis, as long as no one's watching. No arrest, indictment, conviction or sentence can ever make us doubt you.
Pure as the driven snow
Pure as the driven snow
For the sake of full disclosure, I will note that I studied at Yeshivat Or Etzion and taught at Yeshivat HaKotel. Technically, Elon was the rosh yeshiva while I was there, but he was under the bizarre semi-excommunication dictated by the Takanah organization, headed by Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. (I studied there for the better part of a decade.) Needless to say, this whole affair has seriously affected the way I think of all three, albeit to varying degrees.

Now, people often ask me why I, an Orthodox rabbi, write in defense of homosexuals (or they just tell me that since I do so, I can't really be an Orthodox rabbi). The answer is right in front of you. What happened to Alan Turing is vile and disgusting, and it is not that distant from our experience. The queen who just pardoned him is the same queen who prosecuted him. The fact that he was a once-in-a-generation genius, the fact that he was a war hero, the fact that he had consensual sex with a 19-year-old--none of it mattered, because GAAAA-AAAY! That's why I get up in arms about bearded rednecks who use their limited understanding of the Bible to condemn gays as the source of all immorality and sin (without letting those uppity black folk off the hook); that's why I enlist to fight the supposedly enlightened rabbi-doctors who are calling us to "continue to wage the war" against the gays and those "who might accept them, and treat them with respect and understanding."

It's the only way to fathom the shocking cruelty shown towards Turing all those years ago; I would argue that it also goes a long way to explaining the shocking leniency shown towards Elon now. Once you classify homosexuality as sickness, it's easy to say that Elon had a bout of it, but now he's all better. Only through the lens of homophobia can you discount both the consensual, mutual romantic relationship between Turing and his adult paramour in 1952 and the coercive, vindictive rape committed by Elon against his underage victim fifty years late. I do not want to be in that bigoted camp under any circumstances. It's not about mercy, Ma'am; it's about justice, God save you.

Personally, at the end of the day, I pray for my portion to be with the God of Alan Turing, not the God of Moti Elon.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bullish on Hanukka


A guest post by Y. Bloch

Tonight, the two Tannaitic views of superlative Hanukka lights pass like ships in the night. On 28 Kislev, Beit Hillel says to light four and Beit Shammai says to light five; on 29 Kislev, it's the reverse. What is the reason for their dispute? The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) records:

Ulla said: In the West, two Amoraim, R. Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida, differ therein: one maintains, The reason of Beit Shammai is that it shall correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beit Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone; but another maintains: Beit Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks of the Festival; whilst Beit Hillel's reason is that we increase in holiness but do not reduce.

Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: There were two elders of Sidon, one did as Beit Shammai and the other as Beit Hillel: the former gave the reason of his action that it should correspond to the bullocks of the Festival, while the latter stated his reason because we increase in holiness but do not reduce.
 Interestingly, the scholion of Megillat Taanit lists only this latter pair of reasons. Even in the (Babylonian) Talmud, we go out of our way to find this set, not only to the West (Israel), but Sidon as well. Counting days, up or down, is easy enough to grasp, but why should we care about "the bullocks of the Festival"?

II Maccabees, of course, tells us that Hanukka was made eight days to correspond to the Festival of Sukkot. Still, Sukkot has many aspects, so it's not clear why the bullocks are the focus. Furthermore, if we're using those eight days as the source and counting Shemini Atzeret, the bullocks actually go 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 1. Even Beit Shammai doesn't light that way.

Ah, but we're not worried about Beit Shammai because we follow Beit Hillel; "we increase in holiness but do not reduce." But we're applying this to quantity, while that is a rule of quality: the Showbread are placed on a marble table on the way in to the Sanctum, and on a gold table on the way out (Shekalim 6:4); an acting High Priest cannot go back to being a common priest (Yoma 12b). Are five lights holier than four? I seem to remember hearing somewhere that "All eight days of Hanukka, these lights are holy."

Perhaps we need to put this dispute of the Hillel and Shammai schools in the context of their founders. Though Shammai is forever known as Hillel's opposite number, he had a predecessor:

Hillel and Menahem did not argue; then Menahem went forth and Shammai entered.
                                                                        (Mishna, Hagiga 2:2)
Whither did he go forth? Abbayei said: He went forth into evil courses. Rava said: He went forth to the King's service. Thus it is also taught: Menahem went forth to the King's service, and there went forth with him eighty pairs of disciples dressed in silk.
                                                                         (Talmud, ibid. 16b)

In other words, Hillel and Shammai only came together because Menahem "went forth," taking 160 prominent students with him. This was at the lowest point of the monarchy in Judea during Second Temple times, as the Hasmonean dynasty gave way to the Herodian. It was a time to doubt, 200 years after the miracle, if Hanukka was still worth observing.

Both Shammai and Hillel believe in maintaining Hanukka, but the lights have now become symbolic. The bullocks of Sukkot, according to Sukka 55b, which add up to seventy, represent the seventy nations of the world. As Rashi explains (Num. 29), just as these bullocks decrease, the great empires will always decline and fall. It happened to the Greeks, and it would happen to Rome.

Hillel takes the positive view: the Temple may be at the lowest level, the Jewish state may be feeble, the monarchy may be far from its ideals, but "we increase in holiness." As long as the nation survives, there is hope to build and grow.

Search for more information about Hanukka at4torah.com

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).
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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 at4torah.com

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 Haaretz.com 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 TheTorah.com. 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 Haaretz.com, 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?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Necrolatry

No, I don't mean necrophilia (well, maybe just a little, metaphorically). Nor do I mean necromancy, although we'll get to that. Necrolatry, you see, is the worship of the dead. It's something we don't think about much in modern Western society, except for one day a year. Well, a week. OK, a month. Fine, starting with Labor Day!
That, of course, is when the stores in the US, Canada and the UK start hauling out the merchandise for Halloween, All Hallows' Eve. If it has a witch, skeleton or ghost on it, it goes on the shelves. Of course, as so much of the stress has now moved to adult party attire (females, you can choose anything from sexy abacus to sexy zucchini!) and refreshments (what color vomit would look best on you?), Halloween has lost some of its spookiness. Still, there's no question that this is a holiday with some seriously macabre origins.
Just take a gander towards the equator. In Mexico (and increasingly throughout Latin America), it's the next day (or two) which are Día de Muertos. South of the border, they are not shy about their sexy skeletons.
240px-Catrinas_2
I don't know, catrinas, those necklines are a little low-cut...
What's remarkable is that although both holidays have pagan origins (and were later Christianized), those origins are not the same, unless there was some land-bridge connecting the Celts to the Aztecs. The desire to have contact with the dead, especially one's own relatives, is apparently universal.
That, presumably, is why the Torah feels the need to express such antipathy towards these practices. The Torah forbids and condemns acting as a "necromancer (ov) or spiritist (yidoni)" or consulting such mediums. The elimination of such practices establishes the bona fides of the first and last independent kings of the Jewish state (Saul and Josiah), while embracing them is the final line of the indictment against its wickedest monarch, Manasseh. More than a dozen times, Scripture criticizes these acts. As Isaiah states (8:19):
When someone tells you to consult necromancers and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?
According to Deut. 18, being "an inquirer of necromancers and spiritists or a seeker of the dead" is antithetical to the command "Be perfect with Lord your God," the first command given to Abraham and Sarah: "Walk before me and be perfect" (Gen. 17:1).
So don't light your Sabbath candles inside this.
So don't light your Sabbath candles inside this.
This is a particularly relevant as we prepare to read Ḥayei Sara, which literally means "the life of Sarah." Twice in the introductory verse (Gen. 23:1), the Torah speaks of Sarah's life, even though the portion that follows deals with the aftermath of her death. Thus, even though it is about to speak of the demise of the first matriarch, the Torah opens by referring to her life.
The same is true of the final portion of Genesis, Vayḥi, which is about Jacob's parting from his sons. Still, the introductory verse (47:28) states: "And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years, and Jacob's days, the years of his life..." In fact, the verse describing Jacob's expiration does not even use the standard phrase "and he died," leading to Rabbi Yoḥanan's famous statement, "Our patriarch Jacob did not die... just as his progeny lives, he lives" (Talmud, Taanit 5a).
Nor is this limited to our forebears in Genesis. Elsewhere (Berakhot 18a), R. Ḥiyya expounds: "'For the living know that they shall die' (Eccl. 9:5) -- these are the righteous, who in their death are called living." The Talmud seems to differ from the Bard's view: the good that men do lives after them and is not interred with their bones.
Judaism is not, and never should be, a death cult, seeking the approbation or advice of those who have passed on. This is the hallmark of a dying or dead faith. Torah, the tree of life (Prov. 3:18), is for the living. Halloween is no Jewish holiday for good reason.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sarah and the First Get

Was our founding matriarch the world's first divorce attorney? Maybe not, but the biblical record is intriguing.

The Talmud (Megilla 14a) identifies Sarah as the first of seven biblical prophetesses, proving this from a verse in this week's Torah portion: "She perceived with the Holy Spirit, as it says (Gen. 21:12), 'In all that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.'" But what command of Sarah is it that receives this divine imprimatur?
Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this handmaid, along with her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” (v. 10)
So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave to Hagar, putting on her shoulder; and along with the boy, he sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. (v. 14)
Haggar_cat
No word on the cat.
The two terms used here are, respectively, garash (drive out) and shalach (send away). Though the subject of this passage is supposedly Hagar's son (probably Ishmael, though he is not named; Midrashic sources deduce his age to be 17 or 27), these verbs refer directly to her, while the boy is thrown in with the preposition et. In biblical Hebrew, garash and shalach are the terms used for divorce (cf. Lev. 21:7, Deut. 24:1), and this is exactly what seems to be happening between Abraham and Hagar--at Sarah's behest!

But don't take my wordiness for it. In the Midrash (Pirkei de-R. Eliezer 29), Judah b. Tema states: "Sarah said to Abraham, 'Write a bill of divorce (get gerushin) for the handmaid, and send away this handmaid." In the Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan), "He sent her away" is rendered "He dismissed her with a bill (gitta)."
This changes the tenor of the line, Sarah's final words and last appearance (alive) in Scripture. What could have been vindictive and vicious is instead virtuous: Sarah, a woman who has been abducted twice by foreign rulers and hid her marriage for years to safeguard her family, wants Hagar to be free and clear. This fits in with the Midrashic view of Sarah (Gen. Rabba 39:14, 84:4) as a "maker of souls" who ministers to the women drawn in by Abraham's preaching. She must have heard some pretty horrific stories over the years, and it makes sense that she did not want to make a sad situation worse.
Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael, George Segal, 1987
Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael, George Segal, 1987
As God confirms, it is time for Ishmael to leave his father's house, and his mother needs to go with him (as we see a few verses later, when she finds him a wife from her homeland, Egypt). But Sarah orders Abraham to do it with a get, unambiguously. Hagar will not be an aguna, a woman chained to a man who refuses to release her from the bonds of marriage.

The sad fact is that in the Ancient Near East, there were many options for men who wanted to dispose of inconvenient wives. In Esther 2:14, we see that Ahasuerus maintains a harem for his "used" girls, should he ever want to invite them back. That's quite a few centuries after Abraham, but his own brother had both a wife and a concubine, as we see in the next chapter of Genesis. Concubines, of course, could be taken and dismissed practically at will, without documents of marriage or divorce. A darker possibility would be to sell Hagar back into slavery, an option so real that the Torah expressly forbids doing so with a Hebrew handmaiden (Ex. 21:8) or a war bride (Deut. 21:14). So, while divorcing Hagar may seem cruel, it does appear to be the least bad option.

One cannot help but think of this in light of the recent case of get extortion in New York. I have no sympathy for a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give his wife a get; it is spousal abuse, plain and simple. However, that does not justify kidnapping, racketeering and torture. The idea that a good aim and rabbinical approval somehow justifies outrageous felonies makes me wonder: what does this mean for all those good men embezzling funds for their yeshivot? Are they too entitled to hazard pay, in the tens of thousands, for their aggressively illegal "righteousness"?

However, I understand the psychological need to justify the criminality: it keeps one's mind off the real plight of agunot, which is not only a social problem, but a theological one. If our Torah truly cares for the oppressed, how can it be rendered powerless in the face of this exquisite cruelty?

Are there halakhic solutions out there? I believe that there are, but more importantly, I believe that there must be. Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber outlines many of them in his excellent piece, "No Agunah Left Behind." We can quibble over which halakhic mechanisms to employ, but not the pressing need for action--not violence, not crime, but true advocacy, initiative and bravery.

Finally, let us consider this. According to the Midrash (Tanhuma, Hayei Sara 4), the final verses of Proverbs are Abraham's eulogy of Sarah. In that context, we find (31:26), "She has opened her mouth in wisdom and the law of compassion (torat hesed) is upon her tongue." Torat hesed--what a revolutionary concept!

Isn't it time we started listening to Mother Sarah's voice?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Hereticulous

Most Sabbath mornings, my choice of synagogue does not make much of a difference. Sure, there are minor differences in the liturgy, but aren't we all reading from the same Torah? Ashkenazim may wrap it in embroidered velvet and Sephardim may encase it in a hard shell, but it's still the same ink, parchment, sinew and wood, right?
ShowImage.ashx
The one on the right is showing a bit too much leg. I'd avoid certain neighborhoods.
51 out of 52 weeks, you'd be right in that assumption--but not for this weekend's portion, Parashat Noach. Genesis 9 concludes:
So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years, and he died.
That, at least, is the (an) English translation, but what is the original Hebrew text? In Yemenite scrolls, it's ויהיו; in others, it's ויהי. The former is plural, while the latter is singular; either one seems grammatically correct, based on the phrasing in Gen. 5. It's a minor difference, surely (one of twenty-one distinctive features of the Yemenite Torah), but still more than enough to invalidate a Torah scroll.
However, if one wrote the short form of a word that should be spelled using a long form, or the long form of one that should be spelled using a short form, it is invalid... It does not have the holiness of a Torah scroll and, instead, is considered as one of the bibles from which children are taught.
That's what Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Torah Scrolls 7:11), and the text he endorses is the Yemenite one (ibid. 8:4). Still, the ramifications would seem to be even greater in his Eight Principle of Faith:
I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah in our hands currently is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace upon him.
You may recognize this principle from the campaign to delegitimize the critical analysis of Torah text. But considering that this would indicate that any variation from "the entire Torah in our hands currently" is not only fallacious but heretical, does Maimonides consider anyone not using a Yemenite Torah scroll to be an infidel?

Of course, it's not only a matter of divergent Jewish communities of the past millennium. In the 3rd century, R. Joseph b. Hiya noted that his generation did not have the expertise in the spelling of the text to be able to count the letters (Kiddushin 30a), while Mar Zutra maintained (Sanhedrin 21b):
Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the Sacred Tongue; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Assyrian script and the Aramaic language. They selected for Israel the Assyrian script and the Sacred Tongue, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the commoners.
Are these Talmudic authorities also denying the authenticity of the Torah according to Maimonides? The problem is that the Thirteen Principles of Faith, starring in your local prayer-book, were actually written not by Maimonides, but by Maaminides.

Who's Maaminides? That's an excellent question, one we don't have the answer to. All we know is that he (she?) wrote the "Ani Maamin" prayer which I quoted earlier, but It first surfaced in the very late 16th century, close to 400 years after Maimonides' death, in European liturgy. The actual thirteen principles are much longer, found in Maimonides' Mishnaic commentary (Sanhedrin 10:1), and written in 12th-century Judeo-Arabic. Translations vary, partly because this was Maimonides' first composition, and he continued to revise it throughout his lifetime. But how does he define al-qaeda al-thamina?
The eighth foundation is that "the Torah is from the heaven," namely that we believe that the whole Torah now in our possession, which is the Torah given by Moses, comes in its entirety from the mouth of the Almighty.
This is only the beginning of Maimonides' explanation, but he does eventually get around to defining heresy, which he finds so important that he codifies it (in Hebrew) in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance 3:8), a slight paraphrase of Sanhedrin 99a:
One who says the Torah, even one verse or one word, is not from God, if he says: "Moses made these statements independently," he is denying the Torah.
In other words, Maimonides' goal here is not to ensure that Moses does not receive too little credit, but that he does not receive too much; he does not speak of "the whole Torah now in our possession" because, while he does believe that he has the proper text, he does not view the others as heretical. Maaminides, on the other hand, eliminates God from this principle and puts the stress on "the entire Torah in our hands currently," equating it to that which Moses received on Sinai, brooking no dissent.
This is worth keeping in mind as people continue to invoke the Eighth Principle in order to stifle discussions of the text of the Torah. Considering how few of those who do so have good Yemenite names like Qafih and Tawil, they might be wary that their Maaminidean incarnation of Maimonides would rank them as heretics as well!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Where is Moses in the Torah?

Yesterday (today in the Diaspora), we read the final portion in the Torah, Vezot Haberakha; tomorrow, we read the first, Bereishit. This leaves us precious little time to study the opening chapters of Genesis, one of the many challenges of juxtaposing the beginning and the end.
1563870-hand_of_creation
Thanks a lot, Krona.
However, it also allows us to see what the first and last portions of the Torah have in common: a thesis about the perfection of the human lifespan. Consider the sixth-to-last verse of each portion:
And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. (Deut. 34:7)
And LORD said: My spirit shall not remain in man forever, because he too is flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. (Gen. 6:3)
This connection helps explain a particularly bizarre passage in the Talmud (Hullin 139b):
The Papunians asked Rav Mattena... Where is Moses in the Torah? "Because he too (be-shaggam) is flesh."
Of course, Moses is mentioned by name no less than 649 times in the Torah. What could the Papunians be asking? It is true, as Rashi notes, that gematria is at play here, which gives a numerical value to each word, so that be-shaggam and Moses' name are each equivalent to 345, but there seems to be something much deeper as well, linking the 120 years of this verse and the 120 years of Moses.

Now, Rashi himself does not use this interpretation in his biblical commentary; he interprets the 120 years not as a decree related to individual human beings, but to the human race as a whole: the great diluvian clock has now begun ticking, and mankind has only a century plus twenty percent before it will be swept away. Other commentators, from ibn Ezra to Da'at Miqra (Y. Kil), have followed this path, arguing that the 120 years of the Flood are akin to the 40 days of warning for Nineveh in the Book of Jonah, despite a) the absence of any public exhortation; b) the orders of magnitude between forty days and over fourteen thousand days; and c) the fact that God does not decide to bring a Flood until the next paragraph. However, the Malbim and others do follow the course suggested by Rav Mattena.
Indeed, this decree, which precedes that of the Flood, ultimately has more impact for the audience. It comes immediately after a long list of long lives; the youngest recorded death is that of Lamech, Noah's father, at 777 (Enoch does not die but is "taken by God"), while the oldest is Methuselah at 969.
292px-Flint
This guy lied to Captain Kirk. Everyone knows Methuselah died in the Flood.
It would only be natural for the reader to balk at these inconceivable numbers. The Torah explains that in fact it is God's decree, as we emerge from the mists of prehistory, that man will not live "forever," but rather that the maximum for humans is to reach their thirteenth decade. Indeed, some scientists believe that this is biologically true as well.

It is striking that the end of the Torah and the beginning of the Torah pose complementary problems for the contemporary reader. The dilemma at the end of the Torah is that of authorship: who wrote the last eight verses, which take place (up to a month) after Moses' death? That dispute is already recorded in the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a), but some push it back to the beginning of Chapter 34, since Moses never comes down after he ascends Mt. Nebo; others push it back to Chapter 31, wherein Moses hands over the completed Torah scroll, or even further.

The quandary at the beginning of the Torah, on the other hand, is that of literalism. It is essentially impossible to take Chapter 1 literally (this may be reflected in the multiplicity of views as to what day of Creation Rosh Hashana corresponds to), as it includes elements such as three days and three nights before the heavenly bodies shine. What about Chapter 2, which is a different narrative of Creation? Or Chapter 3 and its talking serpent? Does history begin after the expulsion from Eden, after the Flood, after the fall of the Tower of Babel? In light of this issue, it is extremely significant that a decree from the Torah's first portion is only realized in its last.

Our engagement with the Torah changes and develops as we change and develop. That's why we always have to start anew with each new year. That is why Bereishit must always follow Vezot Haberakha.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Top 10 Ushpizin FAQs


It is now the midpoint of Sukkot, so on day four of the Feast of Tabernacles, let's deal with all those pesky queries about the ghostly guests, the Ushpizin!

1) Q: Ushpiz? What sort of word is that?
A: It's Aramaic, borrowed from the Latin hospes, meaning host or guest (we'll be using the latter term), which has given us the term "hospitality."

2) Q: Why do my Israeli friends call an ambulance when I say I want to be an ushpiz for a Sabbath meal?
A: Ah, well just as "hospital" evolved from this root in French and English, the modern Hebrew term for hospitalization, ishpuz, followed a similar route (although hospital is still beit holim, house of the sick).

3) Q: So what's so special about guests on Sukkot?
A: That brings us to the Zohar, the classic work of Jewish mysticism first published in the 13th century, which states (Lev. 103b):
Rabbi Abba said: Abraham and the five righteous and King David share their dwelling together with him. Of this it is written: “In sukkot you shall dwell seven days” (Lev. 23:42)... It is written, “In sukkot you shall dwell seven days” and then “they shall dwell in sukkot”—first, “you shall dwell,” and then “they shall dwell.” The former refers to the Guests; the latter to the people of the world.
Thus taught Rav Hamnuna the Elder. When he would go up to the sukka, he would rejoice and stand outside the doorway of his sukka and say: "Let us invite our guests; let us set out the bread. And he would stand on his feet and bless, saying: "'In sukkot you shall dwell seven days' -- be seated, supernal guests, be seated. Be seated, faithful guests, be seated."
4) Q: Wait, who are the "five other righteous"?
A: It never says, but Isaac and Jacob are mentioned later in the passage, pronouncing curses on those who invite them but not the poor.
Rabbi Abba said: All his days Abraham would stand at the crossroads to invite guests and to set bread before them. Now that he is invited, together with all the other righteous and with King David, and [the needy] are not given their portion, Abraham stands up from the table and calls out: “Go away from the tents of these wicked people” (Num. 16:26). And they all go away after him. Isaac says, “The belly of the wicked suffers want” (Prov. 13:25). Jacob says “The morsels you have eaten you shall vomit up” (Prov. 23:8). And all the other righteous say: “For all the tables are filled with vomit and excrement, with no space left” (Isa. 28:8).
5) Q: Yum. But wait, "the other righteous" could be anyone! Why then are the feminists criticized for coming up with usphizot?
A: Because it's USHPIZAN. Where did you people learn Aramaic grammar, anyway?

6) Q: Then how did we get Joseph, Moses and Aaron as the other three?
A: Oh, that's a different Zohar (Addenda III, 301b-302a):
In parallel to these seven supernal days, the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in the world seven worthies of truth to establish them and enlighten them, each and every one on his respective day, and He planted each one in the appropriate generation. These are the fathers of the world: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
7) Q: But isn't that about the days of Creation, i.e. the days of the week?
A: Yup.

8) Q: So, today is Sunday, the fourth day of Sukkot but the first day of the week. Is it Joseph's day or Abraham's?
A: Well, each of these has a unique Kabbalistic superpower, and Joseph's ranks him after Moses and Aaron, even though he lived earlier. So maybe it's Moses' day, as Sephardic and Hasidic Jews maintain. An Ushphizin Fighting Championship would settle this once and for all.

9) Q: But everyone agrees that it's seven total, right?
A: No. Before Rabbi Abba is quoted, the first opinion leaves out David, so it's only "Abraham and five other righteous." On the other hand, some (like R. Zadok of Lublin, Peri Tzadik, Deut., Sukkot 38) add an eighth for the extra day in the Diaspora: King Solomon. Surprisingly, the same Frankfurt Jews who do not say prayers that have their source in the Zohar nevertheless embrace the idea of eight Ushpizin.

10) Q: Still, it's just words, right?
A: Depends whom you ask. One version opens with, "I beseech thee, X," which is hardly the tone of R. Hamnuna's invitation. Indeed, some authorities (R. Hayim Palachi, Kaf Ha-hayim 639:8) demand action: lighting candles in the name of the respective night's Ushpiz and putting an embroidered chair out for them. (To share?) I'm sure the odd pauper out will appreciate knowing that a seat is being saved instead for those who won't eat.

Q: Huh.
A: That's why I leave it all out. Math is easy; Kabbala is hard.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Gay-mar tov

Thanks, gay mafia. Just when I thought I was out… you pull me back in.

I managed to get through a whole post about the Yom Kippur afternoon reading of the arayot (Lev. 18) without mentioning good ol’ verse 22, which starts off the final aliya of the Day of Atonement. You know the one, along with the parallel verse two chapters later (20:13):
You shall not bed a male (zakhar) the beddings of a woman (mishkevei isha): it is an abomination.
And if a man beds a male the beddings of a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
I thought that I had dealt with this topic thoroughly in my first post for Times of Israel. But on Thursday, Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau (cousin of the new chief rabbi) made news by invoking Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s decades-old halakhic argument about the sexual orientation of gays being defined as oness, compulsion, employing the Talmudic principle “the Merciful does not hold liable those who are compelled” (Nedarim 27a, Bava Kamma 28a, Avoda Zara 54a). I won’t get into the analysis, since Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber already did a fantastically thorough job of that a year ago.

Instead, I would like to get back to the biblical analysis. Although, ironically, it is used in Mishnaic Hebrew to refer to sex between males, the term “mishkav zakhar” is not the biblical term for intercourse between men; it is the term for classic male-to-female genitalia sex, specifically the kind that puts an end to virginity. Consider Judges 21:12:
And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead four hundred virgin maidens, who had not known a man by bedding a male (mishkav zakhar), and they brought them to the camp in Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.
The term appears repeatedly in Numbers 31 as well. But what exactly is it supposed to mean here in Leviticus? The term here is mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha, a perplexing nomenclature. An ish (man) is bedding not another ish, but a zakhar–and not just bedding him, but bedding him “the beddings of isha.” Of course, isha means both woman and wife.

Some have suggested that it prohibits two men from having sex in a woman’s bed, which is profoundly bizarre, seeming to trade homophobia for misogyny. Others argue that it refers to a ménage à trois, which is intriguing but a bit hard to swallow: the verse mentions “both of them.” Still others argue that it refers to a social construct in which such relationships would involve pedophilia or rape, but if so, the fact that the Torah condemns both parties is horrific (and contradictory).

But what if, like standard-issue mishkav zakhar, mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha refers to a situation of permanent physical change? What if the ish is whole, but the zakhar only has his zakhrut (manhood) left, because he has been altered in the mishkevei isha manner? In the Ancient Near East, males were often castrated for the purpose of being sex slaves. Perhaps this is what the verse refers to. The Torah takes a dim view of castration, so it would be consistent with other verses. Were that the case, the great biblical proof-text used to bludgeon gays would fall. I’ve certainly heard no better explanation of mishkevei isha.

Now, this approach is certainly unconventional, but it is not wholly unprecedented to view mishkevei isha as defining not the what of this sexual union, but the who. The Talmud (Yevamot 83b) cites Bar Hamduri's exegesis:
"You shall not bed a male the beddings of a woman" -- what male is it that is capable of two manners of bedding? Obviously the hermaphrodite.
Undoubtedly, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch are different cases, but they share something of an intersex status, creating a hybrid of mishkav zakhar and mishkevei isha. This certainly opens the door to further analysis of this much-debated line.
 Would reinterpreting the verse change the halakhic equation? Maybe not, but it’s a lot easier to embrace paths such as that of Rabbis Doctors Lamm, Farber and Lau if the verse lends itself to other readings.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Too sexy for Yom Kippur

Sixteen forbidden sexual relationships (arayot) are hardly what one would expect at the climax of Judaism's holiest day, but that's what we read from the Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur: Leviticus 18, the final chapter of the portion of Acharei Mot.
Now, the first chapter of Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16, describes the special service of Yom Kippur, including the scapegoat, so we can understand why the Talmud (Megilla 31a) tells us to read that on the morning of the Day of Atonement, but why conclude with a laundry list of forbidden sex (with a dollop of Moloch)?
No, not that one.
No, not that one.
The medieval commentators offer a number of explanations. Maimonides (Laws of Prayer 13:11) explains that "anyone who has violated one of these sins will remember, become embarrassed, and repent;" similarly, Rashi (ad loc.) writes that "the arayot are a common sin, because a person lusts after them and his passion compels him." The idea seems to be that it takes all of Yom Kippur to work up the courage and determination to repent for these sins.
However, Tosafot ha-Rosh point to a different source, an intriguing passage in the Talmudic tractate which deals with Yom Kippur, Yoma (19b):
Some of the worthiest of Jerusalem did not go to sleep all the night in order that the high priest might hear the reverberating noise, so that sleep should not overcome him suddenly. It has been taught: Abba Saul said: Also in the country they used to do so in memory of the Temple, but they used to commit sin. Abaye, or, as some say, R. Nahman b. Isaac, interpreted that to refer to Nehardea. For Elijah said to Rab Judah, the brother of R. Sila the Pious: Did you ask me why the Messiah has not come? Now today is the Day of Atonement, and yet how many virgins have been deflowered in Nehardea!
Day of Atonement, Sabbath of Sabbaths, Fast of the Tenth and... Deflowering Day? Now, we mentioned the special service of Yom Kippur, which had to be performed by the Kohen Gadol (usually translated "high priest," although "great minister" is a better rendering). Not only did he spend the whole day of Yom Kippur running around (of course, while fasting), he was not allowed to sleep the night before (Yoma 1:6-7). Jerusalem's nightlife assisted in this endeavor, and this was a custom which spread far and wide after the Second Temple's destruction. However, as Abba Saul testifies (one generation later), the holy origins of this custom were soon forgotten, especially by the young people who had never seen the Temple. Yom Kippur in Nehardea, then the capital of Diaspora Jewry in Babylonia, started looking like a Vegas bachelor party.
Perhaps this explains the custom described in the end of Taanit by Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, two generations after the Destruction, that on Tu beAv and Yom Kippur "the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments... and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose…" We discussed the origins of Tu beAv earlier this summer, but why would Yom Kippur be an appropriate time to do this? Considering the Nehardean alternative, we can understand why this might be a more positive way to channel the sexual energies of the youth. For our issue, we can understand why it is at this time that we read the passage of the arayot.
Regardless of which explanation we choose, what is clear is that this reading represents Judaism's mandate to confront the realities of human existence. We don't endorse celibacy; we don't condemn divorce; we don't refer to those born out of wedlock as bastards. Sex is a part of human life, a powerful force for good and evil, and even on the day when we most try to emulate the angels (Pirkei de-R. Eliezer 45), we recognize that we are inescapably human.
That is why it so disturbed me today to learn that state religious (dati) schools in Israel are planning to essentially eliminate human reproduction from the curriculum. (You can see the full story here.)
Let's look at one of the shockingly prurient illustrations which the religious authorities are trying to eliminate (please send any children out of the room):
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Gracious me, I feel the vapors coming on. It's almost as bad as that clip with the Emergency Coaching Hologram.
Is this really the path we want to head down? Remember, these are the supposedly moderate and modern religious schools. Will eliminating these subjects make male-female contact more unlikely? In America, the states which employ abstinence-only educational methods tend to have the highest rates of teen pregnancies. True, Halakha has strict standards for contact between the sexes, but that did not help the virgins of Nehardea.
More importantly, what of the "good" kids? Do we want them heading into marriage with an understanding of sex gleaned from the Internet and pop culture, rather than hard science? Even from a Torah-education point of view, a basic understanding of reproductive biology is necessary for understanding huge swaths of Talmudic literature.
If we can read about the arayot on Yom Kippur in our synagogues, surely we need not fear reading about the beauty, majesty and holiness of human reproduction in our schools. Is this truly the subject we want to leave to independent study?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Happy 5940!

As the first Sabbath of the new Jewish year has just concluded, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy, good and sweet 5940!
Oh, wait, your calendar probably says 5774. Let me explain.
Ancient Hebrews counted years the way their Near Eastern neighbors did, by the year of the ruling monarch, the kings of Judea, Israel, Babylonia or Persia, as the case might be. However, as the age of kingdoms gave way to the age of empires, Jews worldwide, especially in the far-flung Diaspora, needed a universal system. They turned to minyan shtarot; this does not refer to the minimum number of documents you must have in a synagogue, but rather a dating system, Anno Graecorum, year 1 of which was 311 BCE.
However, as the age of empires gave way to the age of faiths, worldwide Jewry was increasingly split between the realms of two younger monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, each of which used its own faith-based dating system. Minyan shtarot was largely irrelevant (though in some lands, including Yemen, it persisted until recently), so a new chronology was needed. What better, then, than counting from the beginning, i.e., "In the beginning," Genesis 1:1?
Now, it was easy to tally the years since the Greek era, as that count had been maintained uninterrupted for a millennium and a half. However, the period before that was somewhat murky, so they turned to Seder Olam Rabba by R. Jose b. Halafta. This 2nd-century Mishnaic sage used biblical text and oral traditions to create a consistent historical record.
The problem, of course, is that neither the Bible nor the Talmud are history books, especially when they converge, as in the Persia Era. R. Jose takes literally the rabbinic statement cited in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 3a): "Cyrus is Darius is Artaxerxes," conflating numerous kings of Persia and cutting the multiple centuries of Persian rule down to a handful of decades. (But don't take the historians' word for it: Rabbi Zerahiah of Lunel, the 12th-century sage known as the Baal HaMaor, also concludes that this rabbinic statement is not to be taken literally.) That's why Seder Olam gives the equivalent of 420 BCE  as the date of the destruction of the First Temple, rather than the historical date of 586 BCE. That's a difference of 166 years, and if we add them back in, this year would be 5940.
But Rosh Hashana is still the anniversary of Creation, right? Well, bear in mind that:
  1. The only time the term rosh ha-shana is used in Scripture is to refer, apparently, to Yom Kippur (Ezekiel 40:1).
  2. The question of whether the world was created in the spring or autumn is a matter of dispute between Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer, and the Talmud endorses the view of the former as a matter of fact (Rosh Hashana 12a).
  3. Even following Rabbi Eliezer's opinion, there are different views as to which day of Creation Rosh Hashana was: the first (ibid. 11a), the sixth (Lev. Rabba 29a) or the seventh (Pesikta Rabbati 46).
So where does that leave us? After all, our liturgy talks about Rosh Hashana (to be more precise, Yom HaZikaron) as the day of creation, and we date halakhic documents--those of marriage, divorce, etc.--by the Seder Olam count. Are we wrong to do so?
Well, let us be precise. Our documents read: "On day X of month Y of year Z to the creation of the world, according to the count which we reckon here..." How significant is this? Consider the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh (HM 43:2, EH 127:10):
If the scribe omitted "to the creation of the world," it is kosher.
The Levush, R. Mordecai Yoffe (EH 127:11), explains:
Even if he left out the thousands and hundreds and wrote only the small numbers, e.g. "Year 59 according to the count which we reckon here," and even if he did not write "to the creation of the world" either, it is kosher.
In other words, 5774 is not sacrosanct because of how much time has elapsed since "the creation of the world;" it is holy because it is our reckoning, the universal count which ties all of Jewry together. Indeed, this is true of Rosh Hashana itself: it is not holy because of what was created on that date, but because we sanctify it and celebrate it as the commemoration of divine sovereignty, recognizing God as sole Creator and King.
Indeed, this is how the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashana 1:3) describes the role of the human court (bet din) in the calendar:
If the bet din says, "Today is Rosh Hashana," the Holy One, Blessed be He, says to the angels: "Set up the stand, summon the prosecutors, summon the defenders -- for my children have declared that today is Rosh Hashana." If the court decides to declare a leap month and make Rosh Hashana the next day,  the Holy One, Blessed be He says to the angels: "Remove the stand, remove the prosecutors, remove  the  defenders, for my children have decided to put it off till tomorrow." What is the reason? "For it is a rule for Israel, a judgment of the God of Jacob" (Psalms 81:5) -- If Israel does not rule, the God of Jacob does not judge.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Anat retentive: A Selihot special

I wish to speak to you today about a disorder which has been prevalent in Israel and the worldwide Jewish community for some time, but has really hit epidemic proportions in the last six months.
It's called Anat retentiveness. It's serious, but there is a cure.

What is Anat retentiveness? Well, Sigmund Freud coined the term "anal retentiveness" for those who, to their detriment, are so obsessed with picayune details that it annoys others. Freud thought it was ultimately about baby poop, but that's been largely discarded, except of course for making diaper bombs to toss at women who come, with ritual objects usually monopolized by men, to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

This brings us to the similarly-named Anat retentiveness. In this condition, one is overly obsessed, to one's own detriment and the annoyance of others, with the picayune details of one person, namely Anat Hoffman, whose day job is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, "the public and legal advocacy arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism." Progressive, here in Israel, equals Reform. Don't get me started on how confusing the term "Masorati" is.

However, for our purposes, what is more important is her role as chairwoman of Women of the Wall, which will shortly celebrate its 25th anniversary. It is WOW, who are a) a group of women who seek to b) pray at the Western Wall (who'da thunk it?), who have grabbed headlines over the summer since a Jerusalem District Court ruling allowed them to pray as they want at their monthly prayers, namely with Torah scrolls, phylacteries (tefillin) and tallitot (that's an English word now, look it up). Thousands have mobilized to block them from doing exactly that in person, and WOW's detractors on the Internet are legion. And far too many of them are Anat retentive.

How do you know if your loved one suffers from this condition? Here are some telltale signs:

  1. Does your loved one clutch a yellowed clipping from the South Florida Sun Sentinel (Broward County's news follower!) to his or her bosom, murmuring about Anat Hoffman's "plan" to limit men's-only access to the Kotel?
  2. Does your loved one obsessively watch 8 seconds of videotape from an Israeli news show in which Anat Hoffman speaks of a future vision of the Wall without a mehitza (partition) between the sexes?
  3. Does your loved one give the title "Anat Hoffman is No X" to the response to a post about WOW which never mentions Anat?
  4. Does your loved one speak patronizingly about "relat[ing] to the struggles of the individuals who participate and support Women of the Wall’s (WoW‘s) prayer protests"? Or caption a photo of WOW saying Shema as "protest at the Western Wall"?
  5. Does your loved one express puzzlement that the Conservative accept a mixed-prayer area at the Kotel-proximate Robinson's Arch, but Anat Hoffman, as WOW's chairwoman, has rejected it?
  6. Does your loved one stay up all night watching a BBC interview in which Anat Hoffman admits that she is REFORM?
Now, of course Anat is Reform, and she works for a Reform organization, IRAC. But as chairwoman of WOW, she represents a nondenominational volunteer group which has Reform, Conservative and Orthodox members, some of whom arrive at the Kotel in tallit and/ or tefillin, some of whom do not. Anat retentive sufferers have referred to her as the elected president of WOW, which is both wrong and ludicrous, but assume that she were: are Americans now 50% black because their elected president is?
The idea that nondenominational groups must be represented by nondenominational Jews hits close to home for me because my father is an Orthodox rabbi, with his own synagogue, whose day job is at the nondenominational Board of Jewish Education (now called the Jewish Education Project). When he gives a sermon or lecture or interview, is he expressing the views of the BJE or its parent, UJA-Federation? No; nor is Anat Hoffman doing so for WOW when she speaks as a Reform Jew, nor is Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett (who happens to be Orthodox) expressing a "plan" to toss Muslims from the Temple Mount when he prays for the Temple to be rebuilt. One who thinks so is sadly suffering from Anat retentiveness.

Do not lose hope. There is a remedy, manufactured by God Himself. (Biggest Pharma?) The Talmud records (Kiddushin 30b), "I have created the Torah as an antidote." Study what Halakha has to say about women reading from a Torah scroll, laying tefillin, putting on a tallit. You'll be surprised.
Most importantly, let's turn to the dean of Jewish physicians, Dr. Moses Maimonides. He believes that such a malady can only truly be cured when one finds oneself in the exact same situation and refuses to repeat the error (Laws of Repentance 2:1).

So now is the time for Anat retentiveness sufferers! You can break the cycle. Women of the Wall will be holding a Selihot service tonight (Sunday). You can take this opportunity to get over it. Let those who come to pray at the gathering-place for all Jewry do so in peace.

As for me, I have to get to Selihot. Not at the Kotel, unfortunately, but I am heartened by the thought that those who will be there, including Women of the Wall, will be praying for all of us. Shavua tov!

Friday, August 30, 2013

In Hirhurim herem

Here are some quotes for you from a famous Torah blogger:

There is more to the Torah than forbidden and permissible. Those areas also teach us about values.

It seems clear from multiple places in rabbinic literature that some prohibitions are considered worse than others. And some permitted but frowned upon acts are also considered terrible.
You continue to pursue the permitted/forbidden line of argument so we are just talking in circles, which is not worth either of our times. I am not interested in repeating that we [need] to look to the Torah for guidance beyond permitted/forbidden...

As you might have guessed from the title, these are from Rabbi Gil Student, proprietor of Hirhurim (now called Torah Musings). Honestly, I do not frequent the site, but this week I saw a link to David P. Goldman's "Can Conservative Religion Survive Gay Marriage?" It's an interesting piece, although much of it was lost on me because I don't have a background in Catholic theology. I commented, and Goldman responded to me very politely. I had some remaining issues, so I responded, at which point Gil stepped in. His point seems to be that even though there is no halakhic ban on lesbianism among non-Jews, we still need to fight for DOMAesque legislation based on "values." So I asked what the value was. That was the end of that thread. Gil independently raised what I had written, so we engaged anew, until I asked: "What about gay marriage is improper based on values? If you say that they cannot form sacred unions, why not? Because the Torah forbids it? That is a forbidden/ permitted argument QED." We went back and forth, and I asked again, "What is this value that gay marriage does not have?" Gil responded that he would not repeat himself, so I asked him to please tell me where he said it in the first place. You can't see that last comment, because he hasn't approved it. In 15 hours. While a comment from 12 hours later has been approved.

I think I've been banned. Well, until DB bans me here, I'll give you my take on the one Jewish source mentioned in the article, raised two months ago by another blogger...

Of lesbians and levirs

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Earlier this year, I was deposed by a private firm investigating sexual abuse allegations at Yeshiva University High School.
I can understand why they wanted to talk to me. Though one of the main alleged offenders, Macy Gordon, was before my time, I knew the other, George (Gedalia) Finkelstein quite well. My father served under and eventually succeeded him as assistant principal of YUHS for Boys, also known as MTA, and as rabbi of our shul. He was also our neighbor, in the next apartment building over on Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan. His daughter was my first crush.
But apparently, there was a lot I didn't know about George. I didn't know about his habit of "wrestling" students in the 70's and 80's, although apparently then-YU President Rabbi Norman Lamm did, as reported by The Forward's Paul Berger. The door was taken off his office to prevent this from recurring, but eventually he "was quietly forced out" in 1995. Don't worry, he landed on his feet, taking over a huge Jewish school in Florida before making aliya a few years later to work for Jerusalem's Great Synagogue. Complaints have been lodged here as well--with our old friends at Takanah.
When these allegations surfaced late last year, current YU Pres. Richard Joel issued the following statement:
The inappropriate behavior and abuse alleged by The Forward to have taken place in the past, and described in statements attributed by The Forward to Dr. Lamm, are reprehensible. The actions described represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for. They have no place here, in our community, or anywhere at all. The thought that such behavior could have occurred at our boys’ high school, or anywhere at this institution, at any time in its past, is more than sufficient reason to express on behalf of the University, my deepest, most profound apology.
It's a forceful statement, until you analyze it a bit. Joel is reacting to the Forward, what they "allege" and what they "attribute." He does not mention any victims, except to talk about the great YU guidelines for aiding theoretical people. After all, it's just a thought of such behavior, and only in that context does he "express... my deepest, most profound apology." Are there victims? Did any of this occur? Did Rabbi Lamm say this? Who knows!
A week later, they hired a firm to investigate these allegations, and their report came out yesterday, with another statement from Joel:
There are findings set forth in this report that serve as a source of profound shame and sadness for our institution. On behalf of the Board of Trustees and the entire University community, I express my deepest and most heartfelt remorse, and truly hope that our recognition of these issues provides some level of comfort and closure to the victims. Although we cannot change the past, we remain committed to making confidential counseling services available to those individual victims in the hope they can achieve a more peaceful future.
Now that he has an actual report, he's not apologetic, but remorseful. I guess we should be happy that he acknowledges the existence of victims, although he does not offers apologies or remorse to them. The problem here is that remorse (from the Latin remorsus) refers to a gnawing sense of guilt, pangs of conscience. However, what does not appear in this statement are the words "sorry," "apologize," "regret," "teshuva," "repentance" or "forgiveness." But that might imply liability.
After all, people have informed me on social media, and I quote, "This is as good as it gets when you are being sued for $680 milllion." Well, it's true that more than a dozen of the victims filed suit against YU for $380 million in July. Hm, maybe they should thank George for this potential windfall. I mean, once you sue, you're not a victim anymore, right? And it's inconceivable that there are other victims out there who didn't sue, right? Phew, glad that's over.
So why am I "fixated on a word," to quote another commenter? Because this sort of stuff matters to abuse victims. Check out Yerachmiel Lopin's Frum Follies blog or follow Dorron Katzin on Twitter; they are excellent at covering these scandals. You'll quickly get a sense of how important a clear, unambiguous, direct apology can be. Moreover, the lack of consequences for associating with abusers after their crimes have been exposed was recently dissected by former RCA Pres. Rabbi Heshie Billet. YU can and must do much more right now, even though Joel's through-line seems to be "we cannot change the past" and touting the awesomeness of the university's guidelines for the future. What about the present?
Indeed, Sir Elton, sorry seems to be the hardest word. In fact, one of the classic questions about this season of penitence is the following: why does it matter? Why should saying "sorry" or "we have sinned" change anything? Isn't it just an empty ritual?
No, it's not. It means something, because it implies the need to do something to rectify the error, as best we can. At least that's what I thought until Pres. Joel set me straight:
...on Yom Kippur, Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the second set of luchot, the Ten Commandments. These tablets differed from the first in that they were written by God and yet fashioned by Moses...
In the season of introspection, we must fortify that relationship by recommitting to the ongoing work of creation. If our future is to align with the ethical and personal imperatives of our sacred Torah, then we must not wait – we must make it so, not merely in word but in action.
Did you think Yom Kippur was about past misdeeds? No, it's about moving on. Take two new tablets for that remorse, and don't call me in the morning. Assuming you can sleep through the night.