Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Shemini - Narnia and the Vilna Gaon: On Choosing Literature for our Children

Reading in the Park
My eleven year old daughter has recently been reading the classic Narnia series by C. S. Lewis. I asked her if she had finished the first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and, after confirming that she had, I went on to inform her that C. S. Lewis was a Christian theologian, and that the Narnia series is heavily based on Christianity. In particular, I told her that Aslan, the "Lion" of the title, is actually intended to represent Jesus, that his death on the Stone Table is intended to represent the crucifixion of Jesus, and that his return to life is intended to represent the resurrection of Jesus.

Unsurprisingly, my daughter was not pleased to learn these things. In fact, she was somewhat distraught, saying that she didn't want to read a Christian book. While I certainly understood why this bothered her, I told her that the Christian elements were there whether she knew it or nor, and that she was better off knowing they were there than not. In fact, as the conversation developed, I pointed out that all non-Jewish fiction includes problematic elements of non-Jewish thinking, even when they are not explicitly religious. (This is also true for a great deal of "Jewish" fiction, including many of the books published by Orthodox publishers.) On the contrary, the most problematic literature is precisely that literature where the problematic elements are subtle and inconspicuous. When you read a book with an obvious agenda, you instinctively raise your guard and you challenge the assumptions and assertions in the text that endorse that agenda. But when the agenda is not obvious to the casual reader (as in the Narnia series), and even more so when the book truly has no agenda (because the author takes these premises for granted), then our guard is lowered and we are much more likely to accept the ideological, moral, cultural, and religious premises of the author without even realizing that we are being influenced.

This idea is alluded to in a teaching of the Vilna Gaon (פנינים משלחן הגר"א) in connection to the signs of a kosher animal. In Leviticus 11, the Torah tells us that a kosher animal must have two signs, it must have split hooves and it must chew its cud. The Torah then identifies four species that have only one sign, and which are therefore not kosher:

But, of the animals that chew their cud or that have split hooves, you shall not eat the following: the camel, because it chews its cud but does not have split hoves, is unclean to you. And the hyrax, because it chews its cud but does not have split hoves, is unclean to you. And the hare, because it chews its cud but does not have split hoves, is unclean to you. And the pig, because it has split hooves, and is cloven-footed, but does not chew its cud, is unclean to you. (Leviticus 11:4-7)
Midrashically, these four species are identified with the four "exiles" of the Jewish people: Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. (ויקרא רבה יג:ה) The exile of Rome, which continues until today, is associated with the pig, which has the superficial sign of kashrus (split hooves) but lacks the inner sign (chewing the cud).

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) states:

מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב? מפני ג' דברים שהיו בו ע"ז וגלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים וכו' אבל מקדש שני שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב? מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם, ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות ע"ז גלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים וכו'
ר' יוחנן ור"א דאמרי תרווייהו ראשונים שנתגלה עונם נתגלה קצם, אחרונים שלא נתגלה עונם לא נתגלה קצם. אמר רבי יוחנן טובה צפורנן של ראשונים מכריסו של אחרונים.
Why was the first Temple destroyed? Because of three sins that were in its time: Idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. ... But, in the time of the second Temple, when they were busy with Torah, mitzvos, and acts of benevolence, why was it destroyed? Because of the sin of unjustified hatred that existed at that time. This teaches that the sin of unjustified hatred is equal in severity to the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed.
Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eliezer both said, "For the earlier people (i.e. the exiles of the first Temple), whose sins were revealed, the end (of their exile) was revealed. (The prophet told them that they would return after 70 years.) For the later people (i.e. the exiles of the second Temple), whose sins were not revealed, the end (of their exile) was not revealed." Rabbi Yochanan said, "The fingernail of the earlier ones was greater than the belly of the later ones."

The Vilna Gaon
The Vilna Gaon sees in this final statement of Rabbi Yochanan, about the "fingernail" and "belly" of the two generations, an allusion to the two signs of a kosher animal. The early generations are compared to the animals lacking the external sign of kashrus, the split hooves, in that their sins were open and acknowledged, whereas the later generations are compared to the pig, which has the superficial sign of kashrus, but does not chew of its cud, an internal process that is largely hidden from view. Thus, the generation of the first Temple, whose sins were revealed and acknowledged, was punished less severely than the generation of the second Temple, which maintained the superficial appearance of righteousness, but was internally sinful.

The essential point of the Vilna Gaon was summed up by Rav Dovid Tevele of Lissa (in a famous Shabbos HaGadol drasha in 1782, in which he condemned the proposed educational reforms of Naphtali Herz Wessely):

שהרשע המגלה רשעתו ירחיקו העם ממנו ולא ילמדו ממעשיו אבל הרשע אשר הרשעה טמונה בקרבו הוא לאבן נגף ולצור מכשול אשר יתלכדו העם אחריו והביטו אחר דבריו אשר במרמה ידבר.
The people know to distance themselves from an openly wicked person, and they do not learn from his actions, but a wicked person whose wickedness is hidden within is "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence" who ensnares the people to follow him and to pay heed to his deceitful words.

Often, the biggest dangers are the least obvious, precisely because they are not obvious, and they therefore fail to elicit the normal protective responses against a threat. This is true in every area of life, including, perhaps especially, in the education of our children. While we certainly need to carefully screen the literature and entertainment that we expose our children to, we have to bear in mind the the biggest threats to be found in these areas are not necessarily the obvious ones. While we obviously shouldn't expose our children to outright immorality, the real challenge is often in the apparently "innocent" and "harmless" materials that we often expose our children to without hesitation.

For many parents, including myself, the natural gut reaction to this is to insist that our children only be exposed to purely "kosher" materials. Unfortunately, while this might be the ideal, I do not believe this is a realistic option for our children. Whether we acknowledge it or not, all of our homes, even the most insular, are permeated with the influences of the non-Jewish world. In the world in which we live today, there is no truly effective way to completely shut out the values, mores, and ideas of the non-Jewish world surrounding us. (As I mentioned earlier, more often than not, even ostensibly Orthodox Jewish literature carries such baggage within it.) As such, a simple policy of restricting our children's exposure is not only futile, but ultimately dangerous, as it fails to effectively train our children to recognize these influences and deal with them. So, while a certain degree of screening is certainly necessary, our general approach has to be to teach our children how to read (and watch) critically, from a proper Torah perspective.

Of course, this requires, first and foremost, a very strong Torah education. As the Sages teach us in Pirkei Avos, "הוי שקוד ללמוד תורה, ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס" - "Be diligent in studying Torah, and know what to answer the non-believer." The first priority must always be Torah study. Nevertheless, in our generation, I believe it is also necessary for our children to have some exposure to non-Jewish literature, carefully guided, so that the children learn to read and think critically about such material. I readily acknowledge that this is not necessarily an easy thing to do, and that it requires a great deal of effort on the part of parents and teachers. However, I believe that this is the only truly responsible and effective approach in our time and place.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Just Published: Zionism - A Brief Overview

My short ebook, Zionism - A Brief Overview, is now available as a free download. As a preview, I am including below the table of contents and the preface from the book.

Table of Contents


Roots and Precursors
The Roots of Zionism
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer
Moses Hess
The Chovevei Tzion Movement
Supporters of Colonization
Political Zionism

Notable Figures in the Early Zionist Movement

The Zionist Organization

Zionism in Action
Chaim Weizmann & the Balfour Declaration
The British Mandate
Ben-Gurion & Independence
The Government of the State of Israel
The Political Parties
Jewish Opposition to Zionism

Religious Zionism
Non-Messianic Religious Zionism 
Messianic Religious Zionism
Zionism Today


This booklet grew out of materials that I prepared for a class on Zionism given in a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school. The material was designed to be covered in five sessions, each covering one of the major sections, “Roots and Precursors”, “Political Zionism”, “Zionism in Action”, “The Israeli Government”, and “Religious Zionism.”

A number of important changes have been made in the material in preparation for publication. Among these was an attempt to raise the level of the material to one more appropriate for adult readers. Nevertheless, it must be confessed that the material still has much of the didactic tone of classroom curriculum materials. I hope that readers will not find this off-putting.

One of the difficulties I faced while compiling this material is that I am not myself a Zionist (in the political sense). In principle, of course, this should not be a problem. Facts are facts! Human nature being what it is, however, I had to be very careful not to let my personal ideological position improperly color my presentation of the subject.

In preparing this material for publication, I felt that it was necessary to include a section on traditional Jewish opposition to Zionism. Not only is this important and relevant information in its own right, it also provides essential context to the positions taken by religious Zionism.

I have ended my discussion of the history of the Zionist movement with the founding of the State of Israel. Although, of course, Zionism continues to exist to this day, the nature of the movement fundamentally changed with the founding of the state. It is critically important to understand that the meaning of the term “Zionism” has evolved, and today is often used to mean simply that one is concerned about the continued well-being and security of the State of Israel. In this booklet I use the term in its original sense, to refer to the movement to establish a secular Jewish homeland in the land of Israel.

It is my hope that this small booklet will provide, in an easily accessible manner, some of the essential context and background information that is often missing in many discussions of this topic in the press.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book Review: "Daven Your Age" by Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein

In Daven Your Age, Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein makes a sincere attempt to respond to a well-known dilemma; the fact that many adults have failed to grow up in their approach to prayer and still see it from the perspective of when they last studied it, in grade school. Rabbi Grunstein therefore attempts to reintroduce many aspects of this most basic element of Jewish spirituality in a way that is intended to appeal to adults and their concerns.

The book is divided into five sections. The first section is a general overview of basic ideas about prayer. The second section discusses the importance of communal prayer, and the next three sections discuss various aspects of the daily morning prayer service. Each chapter is followed by a brief summary of the topics covered, and these summaries are then collected as a final appendix to the entire book.

One of the difficulties I had when reading this book is that it is fairly obvious that I am not part of Rabbi Grunstein's target audience. While I will readily admit that I am very far from where I ought to be with regard to my prayer, I found the topics that Rabbi Grunstein discussed to be very elementary and I often felt that he was glossing over many major issues, topics, and sources that I would have expected to be covered. This was especially true in the first section of the book. In my opinion, the final three sections, which deal with the details and language of the prayers are far stronger than the first two.

I had similar issues with the style of presentation, which I often felt was excessively informal and "chatty".

However, ultimately these are a questions of taste and style, and it is difficult to judge whether Rabbi Grunstein made the right decision in these areas, especially as I am not really clear on the nature of his target audience.

While I have a number of criticisms of the content of the book, most of these criticisms are about minor details that aren't really worth detailing. The one exception is in the first chapter of the book, where Rabbi Grunstein incorrectly assumes that the Biblical concept of "service of the heart" refers exclusively to a spontaneous, emotional experience. Rabbi Grunstein then compounds this error by reading this idea into the words of two major Jewish authorities, Maimonides and Nachmanides, in their debate over the Biblical obligation to pray. While there is no question that spontaneous, informal prayer is a very important aspect of Jewish prayer, there is no question whatsoever that formal, structured prayer is also a fulfillment of the Biblical commandment of "service of the heart." The debate between Maimonides and Nachmanides is on the nature of the obligation, but all sides agree that all sincere prayer, whether spontaneous or formal, is a fulfillment of the commandment to serve God "with all your heart."

However, with the exception of this one error (which, unfortunately, is in the first chapter of the book), the book is reasonably well-done. The basic themes that Rabbi Grunstein focuses on are all valid and important (even if I would have presented them somewhat differently), and I am sure that there are many people who would benefit from reading his book.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shemos - The Heroism of the God-Fearing Midwives

In the opening chapter of Parshas Shemos we read about the beginnings of Jewish slavery in Egypt. One of Pharaoh's main objectives in enslaving the Jewish people was to end the rapid growth of the Jewish population. The Torah tells us, however, that despite his efforts, the exact opposite took place and the Jewish population began to grow at an even faster pace.

At this point, Pharaoh chose to take a more direct approach to his "Jewish problem" by recruiting the midwives that served the Jewish people in a plot to covertly murder their male children during birth. The Torah tells us the story in six verses (Exodus 1:15-21):
And the king of Egypt spoke to the midwives of the Hebrews, of which the name of the one was Shifrah, and the name of the second was Puah. And he said, "When you deliver babies of the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live." But the midwives feared God, and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them, and they sustained the lives of the boys. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and he said to them, "Why have you done this thing, and sustained the lives of the boys?" And the midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are skilled [in childbirth], before the midwife comes to them, they have already given birth." And God was good to the midwives and the people multiplied, and became very strong. And it was that because the midwives feared God, He made them houses.
Instead of obeying Pharaoh's orders, the midwives actively worked to sustain every Jewish child. This is truly one of greatest stories of moral courage in history. Indeed, the medieval commentator, R' Yosef Bechor Shor, writes that the Torah tells us the names of the midwives in order that they should be remembered for all time for their heroism.

However, this brings us to a difficulty. As Rashi tells us, the Sages (Sotah 11b) taught that Shifrah was actually Jochebed, the mother of Moses, and Puah was Miriam, Moses' older sister. This raises an obvious question. If Jochebed and Miriam were the actual heroes of the story, then why does the Torah hide their identity from us? 

I believe that the basic answer to this question is that Jochebed and Miriam are two of the greatest figures in Jewish history, and if the Torah had explicitly identified them as the midwives it would be all too easy for us to write off their heroism as simply "par-for-the-course" for such outstanding individuals. The Torah wants us to recognize that the heroism of Shifrah and Puah was rooted simply in the fact that, like any pious Jew, they "feared God." Such heroism is something that we can and should expect from every Jew.

This answer gains additional strength in light of the fact that Shifrah and Puah could not possibly have been the only midwives for the entire Jewish population. Rather, as many commentaries (e.g. ibn Ezra, Chizkuni) explain, Shifrah and Puah were the chief midwives, and under them were many hundreds of midwives, all of whom risked their lives to save the lives of the Jewish boys. While Jochebed and Miriam were the leaders of the midwives, the Torah specifically omits identifying them so as not to detract from the heroism of the hundreds of "ordinary" women who also "feared God" and refused to obey Pharaoh's wicked command.

However, some significant difficulties still remain. A survey of the major commentaries finds a surprisingly strong debate on whether, according to the peshat (simple) reading of these verses, the heroic midwives were even Jewish! While most commentaries (e.g. Rashbam, R' Yosef Bechor Shor) reject the possibility that the verses are referring to non-Jewish midwives, there are also major authorities (e.g. the Rokeach, Abarbanel, and Malbim) who see this as the simple reading of the verses.

This would seem to brings us back to square one. Not only did the Torah hide the true identities of Shifrah and Puah, it was even ambiguous about their Jewish identity! There is even a midrash (Medrash Tadshe cited in Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua 9) that includes Shifrah and Puah in a list of righteous female converts! This would certainly seem to directly contradict the identification of Shifrah and Puah with Jochebed and Miriam. Is this midrash simply arguing on the tradition cited by Rashi?

Perhaps we can answer this by expanding on what we discussed previously. If Jochebed and Miriam were merely the heads of a large group of many hundreds of midwives, then it is quite possible that at least some of those midwives were not Jewish. This would explain why the Torah is ambiguous about their national identity, because the midwives were actually a mixture of Jews and non-Jews.

If this is correct, then we have to ask ourselves what ultimately happened to the families of these non-Jewish God-fearing women, who risked their lives for the sake of the Jewish people. Is it possible that their children and grandchildren suffered the same fate as the other Egyptians during the Ten Plagues? Was that the ultimate destiny of the "houses" with which God rewarded these heroic midwives?

Perhaps the answer is that these God-fearing midwives, having come face to face with the utter moral depravity of Egyptian society, chose to join the Jewish people in their slavery. (Thus, they would not even have been counted among the erev rav, which only joined the Jewish people when they left Egypt.) I believe this may be the underlying intent of the midrash that identifies Shifrah and Puah as righteous converts. In that midrash, Shifrah and Puah represent the God-fearing non-Jewish midwives who, having risked their lives for the sake of the Jewish people, chose to throw their lot in with them entirely.

There is obviously a great deal that we can learn from this story. Based upon what we've just said, perhaps the most basic lesson is the central importance of fear of God for all mankind. As Abraham responded when Abimelech asked him why he hadn't revealed that Sarah was his wife, "Because I said, 'The only thing lacking in this place is fear of God, and they will kill me for my wife.'" (Genesis 20:11) No matter how materially or even ethically refined a society or individual may appear, without fear of God there is no limit to the moral depths to which they can sink. But, Jew or Gentile, all those who truly fear God will ultimately merit to enter beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Rise of Heresy - The Hellenistic Jews and the Sadducees

The following material, which was originally written for a Jewish history class in a yeshiva high school, is basically a direct continuation of my post on Shimon HaTzadik.

The Influence of the Greeks

The period that began after the death of Shimon HaTzadik was one of great turmoil for the Jewish people. The Greek presence in Eretz Yisrael increased, especially through the various Greek towns that were founded surrounding the Jewish population. One of the standard Greek strategies, begun by Alexander the Great, for solidifying their rule was the founding of cities that were settled by Greeks and by non-Greeks who had adopted Greek ways. In Eretz Yisrael, many such cities were founded, in most cases by changing an existing town into a Greek style government and society. Among the most important of these cities were Gaza, Ashkelon, Acco (Ptolemais), Jaffa, and Dor.

The establishment of these Greek colonies required large amounts of construction and generated tremendous profits for those who were connected to it. Thus, those Jews who had connections with the Greeks were able to use those connections to become wealthy. The increase in wealth and economic activity caused many people to admire the Greek society.[1] Personal contact between Greeks and Jews, especially Jews from the wealthier and politically powerful segments of society, became more common. Over time, the Jewish people were increasingly influenced by the materialism and secularism of the Greeks and some even began to see the Greek way of life as superior. The word for this belief is Hellenism, and those who followed it are called Hellenists, or, in Hebrew Misyavnim.

The following material will discuss how the Misyavnim­ – the Hellenistic Jews – began and grew into a powerful political party that eventually succeeded in turning the Greek government against the Jewish people and led to the Greek oppression that eventually brought about the successful uprising of the Chashmonaim (Hasmoneans) which we commemorate on Chanukah.

The Generation of Antigonos Ish Socho

Antigonos Ish Socho, the disciple of Shimon HaTzadik who succeeded him as the head of the Sanhedrin, did his best to counter the harmful influence of the Greeks, and to teach the people to serve God without materialistic motives. As the Mishna (Avos 1:3) states:
אנטיגנוס איש סוכו קבל משמעון הצדיק. הוא היה אומר, אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב שלא על מנת לקבל פרס, ויהי מורא שמים עליכם. (אבות א:ג)
Antigonos Ish Socho received from Shimon HaTzadik. He used to say, do not be like slaves who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but be as slaves who serve the master without expecting to receive a reward, and the fear of Heaven should be upon you.
This was a call to the Jewish people to abandon a mentality of materialism in their service of God. Rav Shlomo Brevda explains:[2]
... לאחר תקופת שמעון הצדיק הצליחו היוונים להתחיל להשפיע על אחינו בני ישראל מיסודות חכמת הטבע. וידוע, כי איש הטבע דואג תמיד על קיומו ופרנסתו בעולם הזה. ועל כן מעשיו בדרך כלל נעשים על מנת לקבל פרס. כי תורה ועבודה, כולה לשם שמים, אין נמצאים אלא באלו השתולים על מימי התורה והיראה על טהרת הקודש. וזה פשוט. על כן בא אנטיגנוס איש סוכו בדורו להחזיק את העם בדבריו – אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב על מנת לקבל פרס וכו'. ... אמנם חכמת הטבע השפיע על בני עמנו, לאחר תקופת שמעון הצדיק, לעשות חשבונות טבעיים במעשיהם בגדר על מנת לקבל פרס. ולכן במקדש נשתנה מצבם ממצב למעלה מהטבע למצב טבעי, פעמים דולק פעמים אינו דולק וכו'
After the time of Shimon HaTzadik the Greeks began to successfully influence our brethren, the children of Israel, with the wisdom of nature (secular materialism). It is clear that a materialist is always worried about his survival and livelihood in this world, and therefore, as a general rule, his actions [even his ‘spiritual’ activities] are all done with expectation of benefit. For Torah and service [of God] done purely for the sake of Heaven is only found among those who are “planted by the waters” of Torah and fear [of Heaven] in holy purity. This is clear. Therefore Antigonos Ish Socho came forth in his generation to strengthen the people with his words, “Do not be like slaves who serve the master in order to receive a reward…”
Nevertheless, after the time of Shimon HaTzadik, the wisdom of science influenced the people of our nation to make materialistic calculations in their actions, in the category of “in order to receive a reward.” Therefore, in the Temple their circumstances changed from one that was above nature to one that was natural, “sometimes it would remain lit and sometimes it would go out.”[3]
Nevertheless, although the Greek attitudes did influence the Jews, in most cases this influence was limited to subtle changes in attitude, such as the attitude towards serving God for ulterior motives. Although this influence was certainly harmful, it did not mean that the general Jewish population was turning away from their basic belief in God and His Torah. Unfortunately, however, there was a small but powerful element in the Jewish nation that was influenced to a much greater degree.

The Beginnings of Heresy

Chazal tell us that around the time of Antigonos Ish Socho another development occurred which contributed to the rise of the Misyavnim:
אנטיגנוס איש סוכו היו לו שני תלמידים שהיו שונין בדבריו והיו שונין לתלמידים ותלמידים לתלמידיהם, עמדו ודקדקו אחריהן ואמרו מה ראו רבותינו לומר דבר זה, אפשר שיעשה פועל מלאכה כל היום ולא יטול שכרו ערבית? אלא אילו היו יודעין רבותינו שיש עולם אחר ויש תחיית המתים לא היו אומרים כך. עמדו ופרשו מן התורה ונפרצו מהם שתי פרצות צדוקים וביתוסים, צדוקים על שום צדוק ביתוסים על שום ביתוס. והיו משתמשין בכלי כסף וכלי זהב כל ימיהם שהיתה דעתן גסה עליהן. היו צדוקים אומרים מסורת היא ביד פרושים שהן מצערין עצמן בעוה"ז ובעוה"ב אין להם כלום. (אבות דרבי נתן ה:ב ע"פ נוסחת הגר"א)
Antigonos Ish Socho had two disciples [named Tzadok and Baisos] who studied his words (quoted above, "Be as slaves who serve the master without expecting to receive a reward.") and taught them to their students and the students taught them to their students. They rose up and examined these words closely and said, “What caused our teachers to say this thing? Is it possible that a laborer can perform his work for the entire day and not receive his payment in the evening? Rather, if our teachers had known that there was a world after this and a resurrection they would not have said this!” They rose up and separated from the Torah [4] and two sects separated from them, the Tzedukim (Sadducees) and the Baisusim. The Tzedukim were named after Tzadok, and the Baisusim were named after Baisos. [5] They used golden and silver vessels all their days for they were gluttonous. The Tzedukim said, “It is a tradition amongst the Prushim (Pharisees) [6] to afflict themselves in this world, and in the world to come they have nothing.” (Avos D’Rebi Noson 5:2) [7]
Thus, through the misinterpretation of the teachings of Antigonos Ish Socho, a heretical movement began which, because it denied the belief in reward in the afterlife and the resurrection of the dead, denied the Torah. There is some question, however, as to what degree they abandoned the Torah. Rav Yakov Emden, in his notes on Avos D’Rebi Noson states:
עמדו ופירשו מן התורה. נ"ב לפי הטעם משמע סתמו כפירושו שמכללות התורה פרשו, אבל בכ"מ בתלמוד נראה שהיו מחזיקים בתורה שבכתב, א"כ לא פירשו אלא מתורה שבע"פ. אפ"ה קרי לה תורה סתם שהרי הוא כפורש מכולה שא"א לקיימה אם לא ע"פ מסורת חכמים.
“They rose up and separated from the Torah” – This implies that they separated from the entire Torah, but throughout the Talmud we see that they adhered to the Written Torah, and they only separated themselves from the Oral Torah. Nevertheless, this is referred to simply as Torah for abandoning the Oral Torah is considered as abandoning the entire Torah because the Torah can only be fulfilled according to the tradition of the Sages.
Rav Yakov Emden was apparently of the opinion that the Sadducees truly believed in the authority of the Written Torah, and "only" rejected the teachings of the Sages. This also appears to be the position of the Rashbam (Bava Basra 115b):
צדוק ובייתוס תלמידי אנטיגנוס איש סוכו היו והיו שונין לתלמידיהן מה שקבלו מאנטיגנוס אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין כו' וטעו התלמידים בכך שהיו סבורים דהכי קאמר עבדו למקום ואל תקבלו שכר ואמרו כמו שאין בו ממש בדבר זה כן כל דברי חכמים וטעו ופקרו בדברי חכמים ונקראו צדוקים על שם צדוק ובייתוסין על שם בייתוס באבות דרבי נתן:
Tzadok and Baisos were disciples of Antigonos Ish Socho, and they taught their students what they had received from Antigonos, “Do not be servants who serve etc.” The students erred in this and thought that he was saying, “Serve God and do not receive a reward.” They said, “Just as this makes no sense, so too all the words of the Sages.” They erred and they abandoned all the words of the Sages and they were called Sadducees after Tzadok and Baisusim after Baisus – [as is stated] in Avos D’Rebi Noson.
Thus, according to the Rashbam as well, it seems that the Sadducees only abandoned the Oral Torah (because they rejected the teachings of the Sages), but they genuinely maintained their belief in the Written Torah. [8]

Maimonides, however, maintains that the founders of the Sadducees actually abandoned the Torah entirely, but they recognized that the general Jewish community would never accept such teachings, and they therefore claimed to believe in the Written Torah and only openly denied the Oral Torah. Maimonides explains (commentary on Avos 1:3):
והיו לזה החכם שני תלמידים: שם האחד צדוק ושם השני ביתוס. וכאשר שמעו שאמר זה המאמר יצאו מלפניו ואמר האחד לרעהו, הנה הרב אמר בבאור שאין לאדם לא גמול ולא עונש ואין תקוה כלל! כי לא הבינו כונתו. וסמך האחד מהם ידי חבירו ויצאו מן הכלל והניחו התורה. התחברה לאחד כת אחת ולחברו כת אחרת וקראום החכמים צדוקים וביתוסים. וכאשר לא היו יכולים לקבץ הקהילות לפי מה שהגיע להם מן האמונה, שזאת האמונה הרעה תפריד הנקבצים כל שכן שלא תקבץ הנפרדים, נטו להאמין הדבר שלא יכלו לכזבו אצל ההמון שאלו היו מוציאים אותו מפיהם היו הורגים אותם, רצוני לומר, דברי תורה. ואמר כל אחד לסיעתו שהוא מאמין בתורה וחולק על הקבלה שאינה אמיתית. וזה לפטור עצמם מן המצוות המקבלות והגזרות והתקנות אחר שלא יכלו לדחות הכל – הכתוב והמקובל. ועוד, שהתרחב להם הדרך לפרוש. כי אחר ששב הפרוש בבחירתם היה יכול להקל במה שירצה ולהכביד במה שירצה כפי כונתו אחר שאינו מאמין בעקר כלו. ואמנם בקשו דברים המקבלים אצל קצת בני אדם לבד. ומאז יצאו אלו הכתות הרעות ויקראו באלו הארצות, ר"ל מצרים, קראים ושמותם אצל החכמים צדוקים וביתוסים. והם אשר התחילו להשיב על הקבלה ולפרש הפסוקים כפי מה שיראה להם מבלתי שישמעו לחכם כלל, הפך אמרו יתברך, "על פי התורה אשר יורוך ועל המשפט אשר יאמרו לך תעשה לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך ימין ושמאל" (דברים יז:יא)
[Antigonos Ish Socho] had two disciples, the name of one was Tzadok and the name of the second was Baisos. When they heard him make this statement [that one should not serve God for the sake of reward], they went out from before him and one said to his fellow, “Behold, the teacher has clearly said that a person has no reward and no punishment, and there is nothing to look forward [in the afterlife] to at all!” For they did not understand his intent. And one lent support to the other and they left the community and abandoned the Torah. A sect gathered around one, and another around his fellow, and the Sages called them Sadducees and Baisusim. As they were unable to gather communities based on what they actually believed – for this wicked belief separates the gathered, it certainly cannot gather the separated – they pretended to believe in that which they could not deny before the populace, namely, the [written] words of the Torah – for if they had expressed [their disbelief in the Torah, the populace] would have killed them. Each one said to his followers that he believes in the Torah but he disputes the [rabbinic] tradition for it is not authentic. They said this to exempt themselves from the traditional laws, decrees, and ordinances, as they could not [openly] reject everything – both Written and Received. Furthermore, [rejecting the rabbinic tradition] broadened the path of interpretation, for now that they were free to interpret as they wished, one could be lenient where he wished to be lenient and strict where he wished to be strict, according to his own purposes, since he did not actually believe at all. However, they only sought changes that appealed to at least some people.[9] This was the beginning of these evil sects, who are called Karaites [10] in these lands, i.e. Egypt, and who were known to the Sages as Sadducees and Baisusim. They were the first to challenge tradition and to interpret the verses in any manner they saw fit without listening to a sage at all. This is the opposite of what He Who is to be Blessed (i.e. God) said, “According to the teaching which they will teach you and the judgment they will tell you, so shall you do, you shall not veer from the thing they say to you right or left.” [11] (Deuteronomy 17:11)
According to Maimonides, the leaders of the Sadducees were completely irreligious, and their claims to religious belief were only intended to attract ordinary Jews to their false teachings. The Sefer HaKabala of the Raavad adds that Tzadok and Baisos actually became leaders amongst the Kussim (Samaritans) at Mount Gerizim.

Like many aspects of ancient history, it is probably impossible to know the precise nature of the relationship between the Hellenistic Jews and the Sadducees. However, it is clear that both movements appealed to the same basic population of wealthy and politically Jews with minimal commitment to traditional Judaism. In political terms, both movements served the same basic function of undermining the authority of tradition and of the Sages. The popularity of each movement seems to have risen and fallen depending on the political conditions of the time. When the Jews were under Greek rule, Hellenism was dominant. When the Jews were independent, Hellenism fell out of favor and the Sadducee movement rose in its place.

Thus, the group that was known as the Sadducees did not actually rise up as a significant sect until after the Greeks had been defeated by the Hasmoneans and an independent Jewish commonwealth had been established. Rav Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi explains (Doros HaRishonim Vol. 1, p.170):
בתחילה בשעה שמלכו היוונים בארץ פרצו כל גדר וגבול ויהיו לפושעים ומורדים ביד רמה והולכים בכל דרכי היוונים. ואחר זה, כאשר נצחו החשמונאים הגבורים ויגרשו היוונים מן הארץ ויעמידו את הדת על תילה, שבו גם אלו בהכרח מהיות עוד פושעים ומורדים בעמם והולכים בדרכי היוונים ויהיו רק למקילים בדברי סופרים.
In the beginning, when the Greeks were ruling the land, the heretics violated every boundary and they sinned and rebelled [against the Torah] publicly, and they followed the ways of the Greeks entirely. Afterwards, when the mighty Chashmonaim were victorious and they drove the Greeks out of the land and properly reestablished the religion, the heretics were also forced to cease their open sinfulness and rebellion and their mimicking of the Greeks, and they resorted to just being “lenient” in the words of the Scribes.

[1] Based on M’Nechemia Ad Atah, ch. 26, by R' Chaim Dov Rabinowitz.
[2] In his Kuntres L’Hodos U’l’Hallel b’inyanei Chanuka, p. 17.
[3] A reference to the Ner HaMaaravi and other miraculous aspects of the Temple service which lost some of their supernatural qualities after the death of Shimon HaTzadik.
[4] Some authorities maintain that Tzadok and Baisos themselves became heretics. Others believe that it was their disciples who eventually abandoned the Torah because Tzadok and Baisos failed to properly convey the teachings of their rebbe, Antigonos Ish Socho.
[5] Although originally there were two groups, they were so similar that they were generally seen as one. It would seem that the Baisusim were eventually absorbed into the general group of Tzedukim and they are not mentioned in other sources (such as Josephus and Philo).
[6] "Pharisees" (Perushim) is a term used to refer to the Sages. The term comes from the word “Parush” – separated. Maimonides explains (Pirush HaMishnayos, Sotah 3:4):
זה שהחכמים קוראין עצמן פרושין להיותם מופרשין מבני אדם שיש להם חסרונות והמדות הפחותיות והרדיפה אחר תאות העולם והם מיחלים לשכר העולם הבא ולמדות המעלות
The Sages called themselves Perushim because they are separated from people with deficient character and lowly traits who pursue the desires of this world, whereas they [the Perushim] look forward to the reward of the world to come and to virtuous traits.
[7] It should be noted that this statement in Avos D’Rebi Noson is the only reference in ancient literature to the origin of the Sadducees. The theories promulgated by secular historians have no basis in anything except their imaginations and ideological biases.
[8] One difficulty with the position of the Rashbam is that he implies that the Sadducees continued to believe in the afterlife and the resurrection. Yet, both the Talmud and Josephus indicate that the Sadducees denied this principle.
[9] The interpretation of this phrase is somewhat difficult. I have understood it to mean that the Sadducees did not make such radical changes that would have offended the entire population. Rather, they only made changes that had at least some popular appeal.
[10] The Karaites were a heretical movement that began in the 8th century, whereas the Tzedukim seem to have disappeared after the destruction of the Second Temple, in the 1st century. However, Maimonides (together with Rav Saadia Gaon and a number of other authorities) apparently believed that the Karaite movement was a resurgence of a remnant of the original Sadducees. Some of the early Karaites also appear to have held this opinion to some degree.
[11] This verse is speaking of the Sanhedrin and its decrees and the great Torah scholars of every generation.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Vayeishev - Joseph's Struggle, and Ours

The bulk of Parshas Vayeishev, and the remainder of the book of Genesis, is devoted to the story of Joseph in Egypt. After Joseph was sold into slavery and brought to Egypt, he was purchased by Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh. Within a a relatively short time, Joseph rose to become his master's most trusted servant and he was appointed over the entire household.

However, at this point Joseph began to face an extraordinarily difficult challenge. His master's wife developed a powerful desire for him. The Torah tells us that she spoke to him "day after day," seeking to seduce him. The Sages tell us that she used every weapon in her arsenal: seduction, bribery, and threats. Yet, despite all her efforts, Joseph never succumbed. Finally, one day, Potiphar's wife managed to get Joseph alone, and she literally grabbed onto him by his garments. Joseph fled, leaving his coat in her hand. Potiphar's wife then accused him of doing exactly what she had been trying to force him to do, and Joseph ended up being put in prison.

The story of Joseph's resistance to sin is seen as one of the great examples of righteousness in history. This story is the main reason why Joseph is traditionally known as "Yosef HaTzadik" - "Joseph the Righteous". The Sages (Sotah 36b) describe Joseph's actions as "sanctifying the Name of Heaven in private" and they tell us (Yoma 35b) that Joseph "obligates the wicked", meaning that his successful struggle against sin demonstrates that a person can never legitimately claim that his temptations were too overwhelming. If Joseph, a teenage boy cut off from his family and enslaved in a foreign country, could resist such an overwhelming temptation, then who can honestly claim that they have faced a more difficult challenge?

Indeed, the story is so exceptional that there have been those who have argued that it couldn't be true. The medrash (Breishis Raba 87) tells us that a Roman matron once challenged Rav Yosi on this topic, saying, "Is it possible that a seventeen year old boy really had such strength?" Rav Yosi responded by pointing to two other incidents that the Torah records in the previous chapters, the incident of Reuben (who, according to a literal reading of the verses, slept with Bilhah, his father's wife) and the incident of Judah and Tamar. In both of those cases, the Torah makes no effort to cover up the shameful nature of their actions, despite the fact that these were adults and were still under the influence and guidance of their father. Why then, would the Torah cover up for the sin of a young boy who had no one to turn to? Could any one really blame Joseph if, in his circumstances, he had succumbed to temptation? Thus, if the Torah tells us that Joseph did not sin, we can be certain that this is what happened.

Traditional Depiction
Yet, if we study the commentaries, we find that the story is more complex. Of that final, fateful day when Potiphar's wife tried to seduce Joseph the verse (39:11) tells us, "And it was, on that day, that he (Joseph) came to the house to do his work...." On the words, "to do his work," Rashi comments (based on Sotah 36b), "This is a dispute between the Sages, Rav and Shmuel. One says it means to actually do his work. And one says it means to 'fulfill his needs' with her (i.e. to sin with her), but he didn't actually do so because the image of his father appeared before him." (In the Talmud, it states that the image of his father came and appeared to Joseph in the window.)

There are a few obvious questions to ask here. Perhaps the most basic is why would any of the Sages choose to say this about Joseph? Joseph is one of our great ancestors, why would the Sages chose to sully his reputation?

In the 16th century, this question was posed to the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, R' Levi ibn Chaviv (d.1545). In his response (Teshuvos Maharlbach, 126), after briefly discussing the textual reasons that caused the Sages to put forth this interpretation, he turns to the question of the moral justification for this interpretation, which would appear to dishonor the memory of Joseph. To this he responds that such an interpretation does not detract from Joseph's righteousness in any way. Given the fact that, in the end, he did not commit the sin, the mere fact that he had, at some point, intended to sin does not make him any less righteous. On the contrary, the fact that he had reached that point and nevertheless ultimately turned away from sin actually increases his stature!

This point is also made by the medieval commentary, Minchas Yehuda (by R' Yehuda ben Eliezer), which states that, "כיון שכבש יצרו אין זה כי אם שבח" - "Since he conquered his yetzer (his nature), this is nothing but praise."

However, while this would seem to avoid the problem of dishonoring the memory of Joseph, we are still left with a difficulty. As we mentioned previously, the Sages say that Joseph's example puts the lie to anyone who claims that he should not be held responsible for his sinful behavior because he faced overwhelming temptation. After all, Joseph faced far greater temptation, yet he did not succumb. Yet, according to the Sages, in the final moment, what saved Joseph from sin was a vision of his father! If the only thing that saved Joseph from sin was a supernatural vision, how can we then claim that his example obligates others?

There are some who argue that, in fact, Joseph's vision of his father was not supernatural at all (or, at least, was not a supernatural gift restricted to Joseph). Basing himself on the precise language of the Talmudic passage, R' Yosef Shaul Nathanson (d.1875), in his work, Divrei Shaul (a commentary on the aggadic passages of the Talmud), on Sotah 36b, writes that, at the final moment, Joseph deliberately brought before his mind the image of his father, and thereby saved himself from sin.

This is also the conclusion of Rabbi Mordechai Miller (d.2000), in his Sabbath Shiurim (p.59). Like many other commentators, R' Miller sees Joseph's temptation by the wife of Potiphar as symbolic of the various temptations that the Jewish people have, and continue to, undergo throughout history. He concludes:
Jacob represents the ideal combination of... two aspects: in him, justice and mercy were mingled in exact proportion, finely suited to each situation. His characteristic was Truth..., and it was this that enabled him to conquer both the temptations of love and of hatred, of the friendship and the persecution of the nations. ... This unwavering light of Truth in him, penetrating beyond all appearances, has been an heirloom to all his descendants. This was the quality latent in Joseph, that light that flared out suddenly in his temptation by Potiphar's wife. ... And this 'image of Jacob' is hidden in every one of Jacob's descendants, this touch-stone of truth, that guides us in all the trials of life.
That is why 'Joseph is an accusation for the wicked': the 'image' is not the special prerogative of Joseph; it is in the power of everyone to summon it at will, to call to his aid in moments of confusion and distress the unerring vision of truth that penetrates all the disguises in which evil masquerades.
Thus, every Jew has the ability to bring the "image of Jacob" before himself as a protection against sin. Whether in the simplest sense of bringing before ourselves the image of our own father (or mother, or spouse, or any other person before whom we would be ashamed to sin) at the moment of temptation, to a deeper contemplation of the reality of our circumstances in this world, and recognizing the fundamentally false and deceptive nature of sin and its apparent pleasures and benefits.

However, while this is certainly a valid and important approach, it seems that most commentaries do see Joseph's vision of his father as having been of a supernatural nature, a kind of prophetic vision. According to this understanding, we are once again left with the difficulty we have been discussing. How can Joseph be credited for his self-restraint, and even seen as a model for our own behavior, if the only reason he refrained from sin was due to a supernatural intervention?

This question is addressed by the Dubno Maggid, R' Yakov Kranz (d.1804), in his commentary on parshas Vayeishev (Ohel Yaakov, also see his Kochav L'Yakov on the haftara of Lech Lecha). (We have discussed this commentary of the Dubno Maggid previously.) The Dubno Maggid explains that, even though Joseph was on the verge of succumbing to sin, this was not because he had actually succumbed to his desires, but because he reached the limits of his ability to resist the immense pressure that he was being subjected to by Potiphar's wife. While Joseph had truly fought with all his strength, in the end she had overpowered and broken his will to resist.

However, at this point God intervened. He intervened, not be taking control of Joseph's actions (which would remove any virtue from them) but simply by giving Joseph renewed strength to continue the fight. This was the vision of his father, which inspired Joseph with a renewed will to once again turn away from sin.

And this is the reason why Joseph remains an accusation against the wicked. For this miraculous intervention is available to anyone who truly struggles, to the limits of his ability, to resist sin. We can never truly claim that we succumbed to sin because temptation overpowered us, for if we had truly fought to the limits of our ability, then God would have granted us the capacity to continue fighting even beyond our natural capacity. This helps us understand the almost supernatural strength of will that we see in great Torah sages, for each time they reach the limit of their will, God grants them additional strength to go further.

In the final analysis, the story of Joseph's temptation, and his ultimate success in resisting sin, is one from which we can all learn. We learn, firstly, that one should not imagine that simply being tempted - even to the verge of sin - is equivalent to actual sin. Even if we, for a moment, wanted to sin, what really matters is whether, in the end, we actually did it.

Secondly, we learn that, even at the very last moment, we can still work to save ourselves from sin if we pause, for just a moment, to think about the the true nature of our actions. One of the most effective ways to do this is to imagine how someone that we love and respect would react if they saw what we were about to do.

And finally, we learn that, even when we feel that we are ultimately doomed to failure, because we know that we will eventually reach the limit of our will to resist, we should never give up the struggle, and in the end God will grant us the ability to go far beyond what we thought we were capable of achieving.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Chayei Sarah - The Test of Rebecca

The bulk of Parshas Chayei Sarah deals with the famous story of Eliezer's mission to find a wife for Isaac. The Torah tells us that Abraham sent his trusted servant, Eliezer, to Mesopatamia find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer traveled with ten camels to the town of Nachor (Abraham's brother). He arrived at the town’s wellspring at the time when the women would come out to draw water. Eliezer then prayed that God should guide him with a sign to know which of the young women was the correct match for Isaac. Specifically, Eliezer prayed, that if, when he would ask her to let him drink some water from her jug, she would not only agree to give him water, but she would also give water to his camels, then he would know that she was the woman destined to marry Isaac.

Eliezer's prayer was successful. Before he had even finished praying, Rebecca came to the well with her jug. After she filled her jug, Eliezer ran to her and asked to drink some of her water. She agreed and gave him water to drink. When he finished she offered to give his camels to drink as well until they were finished. She poured the water into the trough and ran to refill the jug until she had drawn enough for all of his camels. Seeing that the sign had been fulfilled, Eliezer knew that he had found the future wife of Isaac.

Many commentators ask how Eliezer was permitted to utilize such a sign, for such signs are usually considered forbidden superstitious practices. (Thus, for example, it is forbidden for a Jew to change his path because a black cat crossed his path.) The Maharal (גור אריה) answers that the prohibition against superstitious signs applies only when the sign has no real relevance to the issue being decided. In this case, however, the sign that Eliezer chose was highly relevant, as it demonstrated that she was a generous and intelligent person and worthy of marrying Isaac.

The Beis HaLevi
The Beis HaLevi (Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, d.1892) explained how this sign showed her good character and intelligence. She gave a stranger water to drink, demonstrating her generosity. However, now that the stranger had drunk from the jug, she could not simply bring the remaining water home, for the water might be contaminated. At the same time, if she would just pour out the remaining water and refill the jug, she would insult the stranger. Instead, she gave the remaining water to the stranger’s camels, demonstrating both her intelligence and her sensitivity to the feelings of others. (In fact, Rivka went even further, refilling the jug several times to water the camels.)

Thus, the sign was not simply a "sign" from above, it was also a test, to see how she would respond to a stranger asking for a kindness. And Rebecca clearly passed with flying colors, showing herself to be a kind and generous person, with a quick wit and an understanding heart. She was clearly an exceptional young woman.

But was she exceptional enough? What about her relationship with God? Was she a God-fearing woman? Shouldn't that be at least as important as her character and intelligence? After all, the unique characteristic of the family of Abraham was their devotion to God, and the wife of Isaac would certainly need to be a deeply religious woman. Yet, not only is this not included in the sign that Eliezer prayed for, the whole issue isn't even mentioned at any point in the story!

Rav Elya Lopian (d.1970) answered that this teaches us that if a person has truly good middos (character traits), then when he comes to the recognition of the truth of God and His Torah, he will quickly attain fear of God. Thus, even though, due to her environment, Rebecca may not have been a properly God-fearing woman, since she had demonstrated that she had exceptionally good character, it was certain that, once she came to live in the home of Abraham and Isaac, she would quickly develop into a genuinely God-fearing person.

This teaches us a profoundly important lesson. Our Sages taught, "דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה" - "Derech eretz (i.e. civilized behavior; good character) is prior to Torah." Ultimately, it is impossible to truly be a good Jew unless one is also a good personGood middos (character traits) are the essential foundation for all other spiritual achievements.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Nitzavim - "Those Who Repent..."

Parshas Nitzavim is a direct continuation from the end of Parshas Ki Savo, which we read last week. The main theme of Ki Savo was the Tochacha, the Admonition, in which Moses describes, in very harsh and frightening terms, the terrible punishment that awaits the Jewish people, as a people and as individuals, when they fail to obey the commandments of the Torah. Parshas Ki Savo ended with Moses again assembling the Jewish people for another speech, the bulk of which is in Parshas Nitzavim.

In this speech, which is a follow-up to the Tochacha, Moses begins with a very brief review of their history so far (i.e. the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years in the desert) and then, in Parshas Nitzavim, he goes on to the discuss the eternal covenant between the Jewish people and God, and the critical concepts of galus (exile) and the ultimate geula (redemption). As understood by the commentaries, part of Moses' intent in this speech was to reassure the Jewish people that despite the apparent harshness of the Tochacha, the Jewish people would always survive and that, as long as the road may be, the inevitable end of history would be the return of the Jewish people to God and their ultimate redemption from exile.

The idea that this speech was intended partly as a reassurance to the Jewish people after the harsh words of the Tochacha is made explicitly in a midrash (cited by Rashi, 29:12). The parsha opens with Moses' declaration (Deuteronomy 29:9), "You are all standing today before Hashem your God." The midrash states:
למה נסמכה פרשת "אתם נצבים" לקללות? לפי ששמעו ישראל מאה קללות חסר שתים, חוץ מארבעה ותשע שבת"כ, הוריקו פניהם ואמרו, "מי יוכל לעמוד באלו?" התחיל משה לפייסם, "אתם נצבים היום" - הרבה הכעסתם למקום ולא עשה אתכם כלייה, והרי אתם קיימים לפניה!
Why was the parsha [that begins with] "אתם נצבים" - "You are all standing [today before Hashem your God]" placed next to the curses (of Parshas Ki Savo)?
Because, when the Jewish people heard the ninety-eight curses (of the Tochacha), asides from the forty-nine curses in Leviticus (in an earlier Tochacha passage in Parshas Bechukosai), their faces turned pale and they said, "Who can survive these [curses]?" Moses began to reassure them, "You are standing here today!" - You have angered God many times and He has not destroyed you, and behold you are still standing before Him!
Although this midrash clearly indicates that part of Moses' intent in this parsha was to reassure the Jewish people after the harsh words of the Tochacha, it itself requires explanation. At first glance, Moses seems to be saying that we don't really need to take the Tochacha that seriously, for, after all, God hasn't destroyed us yet, has He? However, it should be self-evident that this was not Moses' intent. If God tells us, repeatedly and emphatically, that our sins can lead to terrible punishment, then it would be utter folly to dismiss this as mere rhetoric. Indeed, as Jewish history has made clear all too many times, the curses of the Tochacha are very real.

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian
In addressing this question, the great mussar teacher, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (d.1970) explains that it is critical to understand that the purpose of punishment is never simply as "punishment" - i.e. simply to take vengeance against the sinner for his actions. Rather, the purpose of all punishment is for the benefit of the sinner, to break through the hardness of his heart and to motivate him to repent. He cites an analogy given by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, d.1797) to planting a field. Before a field can be planted, the field must first be plowed over, so that the hard surface of the field is broken and the field is able to accept the seeds. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon explained, before a sinner can repent, the hardness of his heart needs to be "broken" so that the seeds of repentance can take root and grow. This is the meaning of the verse in Psalms (51:19), "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

Thus, Rabbi Lopian explains, punishment is only necessary when our hearts are hardened to our sins. If our hearts are already softened, if we already acknowledge our sins and genuinely regret them, then there is no need for actual punishment. Thus, he explains, when Moses saw that the Jewish people took the message of the Tochacha to heart, to the point that their faces turned pale, he told them that that itself was sufficient to spare them from the destruction of the Tochacha. Moses' point was that, ultimately, the punishments of the Tochacha will only befall those who fail to take it seriously. Indeed, Moses makes this point explicitly a little later in the parsha when he says (29:17-19):
Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from Hashem our God... and when he hears the words of this curse, he blesses himself in his heart, saying: 'I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart"... God will not be willing to forgive him, and then God's anger and jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and God shall erase his name from under heaven.
Ultimately, the curses of the Tochacha will only befall those who have no fear of the Tochacha. However, those who take the message of the Tochacha to heart, who recognize that they have sinned and that they need to repent, have already, through that very recognition, achieved the intended purpose of the Tochacha and have no need for the actual punishments.

This principle is actually alluded to in the text of the Tochacha itself (in last week's parsha), where we read (28:47) that the suffering of the Tochacha will befall the Jewish people "because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and a good heart." Many commentaries struggle with the meaning of this verse, which seems to imply that the reason for their punishment was that, even though they served God, they failed to do so with sufficient happiness. This raises a number of difficulties in that, not only does it seem to contradict other verses, but it also seems to be a disproportionate response. (For further discussion of this topic, see: Ki Savo - The Tochacha and Serving God with Joy.)

However, some commentaries understand the intent of the verse quite differently, as saying that the punishment of the Tochacha will befall the Jewish people when they are in a state of "joy and good heart" even while not serving God and obeying His commandments. Thus, the Beis Yitzchak explains:
Even if a person is wicked and fails to serve God at all, but he is troubled and pained by this, such a person is not fully wicked, for there is hope for him that he will repent and return to God. However, one who is so wicked that he feels no concern at all about his wickedness, but is perfectly happy with his sinful behavior, there is no hope that such a person will come to repent [on his own initiative].
The punishments of the Tochacha are intended as a wake-up call for those who are so immersed in sin that they no longer even feel bad about it. On the contrary, they are perfectly happy with their behavior and see no reason to change. It is for such people that the punishments of the Tochacha are necessary to soften their hardened hearts and awaken them to teshuva (repentance).

This principle is used by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (d.1883) to explain an enigmatic Talmudic passage (Nidda 70b) which discusses an apparent contradiction between two Biblical verses. In chapter 18 of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet describes the great power of repentance and concludes (18:32), "For I do not desire the death of he that [should] die [for his sins], says the Lord, Hashem; [rather] repent and live!" This verse clearly states that God does not desire the death of the sinner. 

Yet, in the book of I Samuel (2:25) we find, in the case of the sinful sons of Eli, that the verse states, "that God desired to kill them." So we find that, at least in some cases, God does desire the death of the sinner!

The Talmud resolves the apparent conflict with the brief statement, "Here [in Ezekiel] it speaks of those who repent and here [in Samuel] it speaks of those who do not repent." The problem, of course, is that the verse in Ezekiel is explicitly speaking of a person who has not repented!

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (אור ישראל ל', וראה גם ספר חכמה ומוסר ב:רמד) explains that in this context, "those who repent" does not refer to those who engage in full fledged repentance for their sins, but merely to those who are troubled and pained by their sins, for such a person is already on the path of repentance. In regard to such a sinner, even if he has not yet repented, God says that He does not desire his death. However, with regard to a sinner who is entirely untroubled by his sins, and of whom there can be no expectation of repentance, of such a sinner we are taught that God desires his death.

This principle is particularly important at this time of year, as we approach the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashana and we turn to God and ask Him to grant us a new year of life and happiness. As we stand before God in judgment for our sins, we recognize that, when all is said and done, we are very far from being able to genuinely repent from all of our sinful behaviors. How then can we stand before God and ask Him to forgive us, if we know that we will continue to do many of the same sins next year as well?

Of course, part of the answer is that we have to find some area - even if very small - in which we really do improve ourselves. But what about everything else? Is God simply going to ignore it all?

From what we have just learned, however, we can see that if we truly feel bad about our sins, even if we are not yet capable of changing for the better, then God will, to some degree, temporarily overlook those sins and give us time to grow and eventually reach the point where we will be able to truly repent.

It follows from this that one of our main tasks at this time of year, from the beginning of the month of Elul until the closing prayer of Yom Kippur, is to work on an honest assessment of our weaknesses, to acknowledge that we need to improve, and to genuinely desire to do so. If we accomplish this, even if it only manifests itself in what, superficially, seems to be only a minor improvement, then we can truly turn to God with confidence that He will grant us a good and sweet new year.

May we all merit to have a kesiva v'chasima tova!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bar Mitzvah – The Celebration of Obligation

An adult Jew is obligated to obey the mitzvos—the commandments—and is held responsible for his or her actions. A child is not. At what point does a child become an adult? According to Jewish law, the age of majority—when a minor ceases to be a minor—is twelve for a girl and thirteen for a boy. At this point the child becomes a bar or bas mitzvah—“one who is commanded”—a person who is bound by the laws of the Torah.

The law that a Jew becomes an adult at the ages of twelve or thirteen is not to be found in the actual text of the Torah. Nevertheless, it is a Torah law with equal stature to all the laws of the Torah. The technical term for such a law is a halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai—a law from Moses at Sinai—a product of the authoritative Oral Torah which God gave to Moses at Sinai together with the Written Torah. It is this Oral Torah—which is largely recorded in the Talmud and related works—that distinguishes Judaism from the various man-made religions that are loosely based upon Scripture. It is significant that the very essence of one’s status as a Jew—a person who is bound by the laws of the Torah—is dependent upon a law derived from the Oral Torah. When we celebrate a bar or bas mitzvah, we are also confirming our faith in the Oral Torah.

Technically, no celebration is necessary for a child to become a bar mitzvah. There is no actual ritual of bar or bas mitzvah; one does not become “bar mitzvahed”. In this respect, the bar or bas mitzvah is significantly different from the various other life-cycle celebrations of Judaism, such as the bris milah (circumcision), pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born son), and marriage. Despite this, the practice of celebrating the arrival of a Jewish child into adulthood—becoming a bar mitzvah—is a very ancient custom.

The commentaries tell us that the joy of the bar mitzvah celebration is based on the important Talmudic principle, “Greater is he who does what he is commanded to do, than he who does what he is not commanded to do.” The Talmud tells us that there is greater virtue in performing a mitzvah that one is obligated to perform, than one which one is exempt from. Thus, although a Jewish child may be fulfilling many mitzvos, it is only as an adult, when he or she becomes obligated to obey the mitzvos of the Torah, that the true virtue of the mitzvos can take effect. It is this change in status that we celebrate.

This somewhat counter-intuitive principle, that the obligatory performance of a mitzvah is of greater virtue than a voluntary act, points us to an important concept in Judaism. The essential virtue of the mitzvos is precisely that they are commandments—laws that we are obligated to obey. Although most of the mitzvos are subject to human understanding, in that we can provide some explanation for why God has commanded us to perform these given acts, such an understanding is secondary to the essence of the mitzvah. Our primary goal in obeying the mitzvos is simply to obey the will of God.

One of the classic difficulties in religious philosophy is understanding how it is possible for a human being—a finite, limited, physical being—to achieve a true connection and unity with a God Who is infinite and incomprehensible. In Judaism, this connection is called devekus and is described as the essential goal of all the mitzvos. The mitzvos are a gift to us from God that enable us to achieve this otherwise impossible union. When God commands us to perform a given act, even one as corporeal as eating a festive meal on the Sabbath, He has invested that act with His Will. Thus, when we perform that physical act, we achieve a connection with the Will of God.

We say in the Shema, “Hashem Echad”—“God is one.” This basic principle of Judaism, the absolute unity of God, tells us that God has no parts; He and His Will are one. When we achieve a connection with the Will of God, we are connecting to God Himself. This is only possible because God has connected the given act with His Will. This is the essence of the mitzvah concept. An act that is not commanded by God, as positive as it may be, is ultimately a finite act that cannot, in of itself, achieve devekus—true union with God. Thus, many commentaries connect the word mitzvah with the Aramaic term “tzavsa” – “binding” – because the mitzvah binds us to God.

When a Jewish child enters adulthood and becomes obligated to obey the mitzvos, it becomes possible for him or her to truly connect to God. It is this which is the source of our joy when we celebrate a bar or bas mitzvah. It is therefore important that the tenor of our celebration reflect this.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ki Seitzei - The Prohibition of Cross-Dressing

In Parshas Ki Seitzei we read of the prohibition of cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5):
The vessels of a man shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not don a woman's garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to Hashem your God.
In practical terms, this means that we may not wear garments associated with the opposite gender. Moreover, as understood by the Sages, the prohibition also forbids men from specific behaviors - such as shaving body hair or dyeing their hair - that are commonly associated with women, and the same rule applies to women.

Most sources explain that the reason for this prohibition is that it can lead to immoral behavior and also that such cross-dressing was associated with idolatry. However, many commentaries see a more fundamental issue here, as R' Avraham Ibn Ezra (d.1164) concludes his commentary on this verse:
... ה' יתעב מי שישנה מעשה ה'.
God abominates he who changes God's deeds.
Similarly, the Rekanti (kabbalistic commentary on the Torah by R' Menachem Rekanti, d.1305) writes:
פשטו ידוע, אמנם על דרך הקבלה יש לך לדעת כי הרמז הוא שלא ישנה סדרי בראשית וכו'
The simple meaning [of the prohibition] is well know, however, kabbalistically, you should know that the symbolism [of the prohibition] is that one should not change the structure of Creation....
The Toldos Yakov Yosef (R' Yakov Yosef of Polnoye, d.1794) explains that the basic idea underlying this prohibition is that every person must accept the role, i.e. the unique task that God has given him, and not attempt to challenge or change that role.

Every human being has unique spiritual capabilities which no other person can duplicate. Thus, every human being has a unique role to play in bring the world to its ultimate state of perfection. As the Sages teach us (Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a):
כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם.
Every person is obligated to say, "The world was created for my sake!"
Every individual plays an essential role in the world, and we are obligated to recognize this. As each of us has a unique role in this world, there is no way to compare the circumstances of different individuals. Just as responsible parents need to work with each child as an individual, in order to enable that particular child to fully develop his own unique potential, as we are taught in Proverbs (22:6), "חנך לנער על פי דרכו" - "Educate the child according to his way," so too God directs the circumstances of our lives in order to provide us with the ideal circumstances in which to develop our own unique spiritual potential. Thus, each of us experiences different challenges in life, different spiritual affinities, different temptations to sin, and so on, for each of us has a different task to achieve.

As God's children, our role is to trust Him and to accept the role that He has given us and by doing so we relate to Him as children to a father. This is particularly important at this time of year, as we prepare for the day of judgment on Rosh Hashana. Our relationship with God has two basic levels, that of Father and child and that of King and servant. While both are always present, in many places in our prayers we express the hope that, when we come before God in judgement, the Father-son relationship should be dominant.

As many sources make clear, the primary factor that determines how God relates to us is how we view our relationship with Him. If we see God as a powerful king who imposes decrees on us which we have no choice but to obey, then we relate to Him as a servant to a King. But if we relate to God as a wise and loving father whose rules and demands are always purely for our benefit, then we relate to Him as a child to a Father.